For the first time ever, humans have captured a photograph of Jupiter’s north pole. And it’s beautiful.
That image is just one of the first of many to come from Juno, a NASA spacecraft that entered the gas giant’s orbit in July. It’s set to make at least 35 more revolutions around the planet from the north pole to the south, and in the process, hopefully unlock some of its mysteries.
It’s off to a good start. This first view of Jupiter’s north pole "looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before," Scott Bolton, NASA’s principal investigator of Juno, said in a press statement.
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.
The clouds have an oil-and-water-on-asphalt quality to them. Here’s a closer look at the detail.
Juno also sent back this infrared image of the planet’s south pole, another first for science. This image reveals the contours of Jupiter’s aurora, which is the interaction of its magnetic field with its atmosphere.
"These first infrared views of Jupiter’s north and south poles are revealing warm and hot spots that have never been seen before," Alberto Adriani, an Italian scientist studying data from Juno’s infrared camera, said in a press statement. "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."
Why did we send an orbiter to Jupiter?
Even though Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system, scientists know remarkably little about it.
Basic questions about the planet they’d like to answer include:
- Does Jupiter have a solid core?
- How does it generate such extreme levels of radiation?
- How did Jupiter form and evolve?
Juno is equipped with nine scientific instruments, including sensors that can measure gravity, probe deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere, and test the planet’s magnetic fields, as well as various cameras to capture the planet across a range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Jupiter is made up of the same basic ingredients as the sun — mainly hydrogen and helium. Scientists are hoping a close-up investigation of its surface can reveal some history of the origin of our solar system (with 67 moons, Jupiter is like a mini solar system). And what’s more, the galaxy may be littered with other gas giants like Jupiter we haven’t yet discovered.
Juno’s 1.7-billion-mile journey to Jupiter began in August 2011. The GIF below traces the path Juno took on its journey. You’ll see that about two years into its flight, the orbiter passed back around the Earth for a gravity assist. That propelled Juno to around 165,000 mph, making it the fastest man-made object ever built, and gave it the energy to reach Jupiter within three years.
When Juno approached Jupiter, it hit the brakes and slowed to around 130,000 mph, a record speed for a craft being inserted into orbit.
What’s remarkable about Juno is how it avoids one huge problem of studying Jupiter: The planet’s circuitry frying radiation.
Just like Earth has a protective bubble of radiation (a magnetosphere, which is what creates the aurora light shown around the poles), Jupiter has one too. But Jupiter’s is much, much more massive and more powerful. "Its magnetic field extends so far into space that, if it glowed in visible light, Jupiter would appear to be twice the size of the full moon in our night sky," the New Yorker explains.
For Juno to get close to the surface of Jupiter, it had to sneak in where the magnetism is weakest: near the poles. Once inserted near the poles, Juno can orbit underneath the most intense areas of radiation and protect its sensitive electronics.
Here’s NASA’s visualization of the maneuver. It’s like threading a needle in the deep reaches of space.
Here’s an illustration of what that looks like from Juno’s perspective.
These pictures represent just the beginning of Juno’s exciting mission around Jupiter. There will be many more images, and many more scientific discoveries, to come.