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NASA’s Juno spacecraft captures images of Jupiter’s poles

NASA's Juno spacecraft captured this view as it closed in on Jupiter's north pole, about two hours before closest approach on Aug. 27, 2016. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured this view as it closed in on Jupiter’s north pole, about two hours before the Aug. 27, 2016, closest approach. Click for full image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

On Friday, Sept. 2, NASA released the first images from the Juno spacecraft‘s close approach of Jupiter, which occurred on Aug. 27. The images include first-ever views of Jupiter’s north pole showing storms and weather systems unlike any seen before on any of the Solar System’s other gas-giant planets.

Juno came within about 2,500 miles (4,200 kilometers) of Jupiter’s swirling cloud tops during the first of 36 orbital flybys. Six megabytes of data collected by Juno during its six-hour transit from above Jupiter’s north pole to below its south pole took one-and-a-half days to download. While analysis of the data is still underway,  some unique discoveries have already been made.

This infrared image from Juno provides an unprecedented view of Jupiter's southern aurora. Such views are not possible from Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

This infrared image from Juno provides an unprecedented view of Jupiter’s southern aurora. Such views are not possible from Earth. Image Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS

“First glimpse of Jupiter’s north pole, and it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It’s bluer in color up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms. There is no sign of the latitudinal bands or zone and belts that we are used to – this image is hardly recognizable as Jupiter. We’re seeing signs that the clouds have shadows, possibly indicating that the clouds are at a higher altitude than other features.”

Scientists have also been surprised by something that the JunoCam imager did not see.

“Saturn has a hexagon at the north pole,” said Bolton. “There is nothing on Jupiter that anywhere near resembles that. The largest planet in our solar system is truly unique. We have 36 more flybys to study just how unique it really is.”

In addition to JunoCam taking pictures during the flyby, all eight of Juno’s scientific instruments were turned on and collecting data. The Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM), supplied by the Italian Space Agency, acquired infrared images of Jupiter’s north and south polar regions.

“JIRAM is getting under Jupiter’s skin, giving us our first infrared close-ups of the planet,” said Alberto Adriani, JIRAM co-investigator from Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali, Rome. “These first infrared views of Jupiter’s north and south poles are revealing warm and hot spots that have never been seen before. And while we knew that the first-ever infrared views of Jupiter’s south pole could reveal the planet’s southern aurora, we were amazed to see it for the first time. No other instruments, both from Earth or space, have been able to see the southern aurora. Now, with JIRAM, we see that it appears to be very bright and well-structured. The high level of detail in the images will tell us more about the aurora’s morphology and dynamics.”

One of the more unusual data sets collected by Juno on its first flyby was acquired by the spacecraft’s Radio/Plasma Wave Experiment (Waves), which recorded ghostly-sounding radio transmissions emanating from above Jupiter. This radio emissions from Jupiter’s auroras have been known about since the 1950s but had never the analyzed from such a close distance.

“Jupiter is talking to us in a way only gas-giant worlds can,” said Bill Kurth, co-investigator for the Waves instrument from the University of Iowa, Iowa City. “Waves detected the signature emissions of the energetic particles that generate the massive auroras which encircle Jupiter’s north pole. These emissions are the strongest in the solar system. Now we are going to try to figure out where the electrons come from that are generating them.”

Juno was launched atop an Atlas V 551 variant booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Aug. 5, 2011, and arrived at Jupiter July 4, 2016. Juno will begin making 14-day science orbits following the final burn of the spacecraft’s main engine on Oct. 19.

Video courtesy of NASA JPL



Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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