Juno Update: Jupiter results intensify as spacecraft heads for Great Red Spot

As Juno approaches the king of the Solar System again, Earth-based telescopes have been observing the prominent storm system


This is a composite, false-colour image of Jupiter over a range of wavelengths from 1.69 microns or 2.275 microns. Image credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NASA/JPL-Caltech

As NASA’s Juno spacecraft flies towards its closest ever approach to Jupiter’s storm system, the Great Red Spot, Earth-based telescopes have captured amazing images in infrared that will assist the analysis of the mysterious feature. The Gemini North Observatory and the Subaru Telescope, both situated at Hawaii’s Mauna Kea peak, simultaneously provided valuable mid-infrared and near-infrared images.

On 11 July 2017 at 1:55am GMT (10 July 6:55pm PDT), Juno will pass over the Giant Red Spot for approximately 12 minutes collecting as much data as possible. The results from Juno so far have already surprised many astronomers, with more findings expected. Installed with curiosity, a group of astronomers have used these two Hawaiian telescopes to gather as much information about Jupiter as possible before its arrival.

“Observations with Earth’s most powerful telescopes enhance the spacecraft’s planned observations by providing three types of additional context,” says Juno science team member Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “We get spatial context from seeing the whole planet. We extend and fill in our temporal context from seeing features over a span of time. And we supplement with wavelengths not available from Juno. The combination of Earth-based and spacecraft observations is a powerful one-two punch in exploring Jupiter.”

This is another false-coloured image of Jupiter, but it is focused at a wavelength of 8.8 microns. Image credit: NAOJ/NASA/JPL-Caltech

The observations from Gemini North taken on 18 May examined Jupiter in near-infrared filters. The results not only present a remarkable image, it also penetrated the upper atmosphere, and clouds of Jupiter, to show a mixture of methane and hydrogen in the planet’s atmosphere. The results also showed a long, fine-structured wave extending off the eastern side of the Great Red Spot.

Happening on the same night was the use of Subaru’s Cooled Mid-Infrared Camera and Spectrometer (COMICS), with filters showing the different temperatures within Jupiter’s layered atmosphere. The observations showed that the Great Red Spot has a cold, but cloudy, interior that increases towards the centre, included is a periphery that gets warmer and clearer. Orton says, “A region to its northwest was unusually turbulent and chaotic, with bands that were cold and cloudy, alternating with bands that were warm and clear.”

Jupiter now rapidly approaches the Great Red Spot, where it will eventually sit 9,000 kilometres (5,600 miles) above the feature. The data collected by the spacecraft already has further infrared analysis, thanks to the pair of telescopic giants.

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