A View Far From Home

NASA’s plucky Juno probe has returned its first close-up photographs of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, and they are stunning. On Monday, Juno flew about 5,600 miles above the mysterious tempest — more than a million miles closer than any previous spacecraft has flown.

The Great Red Spot is a massive storm about twice as wide as Earth. It has tumbled in the planet’s atmosphere for at least 350 years.

Juno took the new photos on its seventh pass around the gas-giant planet. The spacecraft swings by Jupiter once every 53 1/2 days at speeds approaching 130,000 mph, which makes such close-ups very hard to capture.

After each flyby, NASA provides JunoCam’s raw image data to the public, and a community of amateurs and professionals turns the muted, unprocessed photos into striking color images. Below are fresh images of the Great Red Spot, along with some other unbelievable shots from previous flybys.

“This monumental storm has raged on the solar system’s biggest planet for centuries,” Scott Bolton, the Juno mission’s leader, said in a NASA statement. At its closest point, Juno flew so close to the Great Red Spot that it couldn’t capture the whole thing in one view. The image below shows the approximate angle that JunoCam was able to see at that point.

A Whole New World

NASA’s
NASA; Microsoft/WorldWide Telescope; Business Insider

Making the task even more challenging: The probe zoomed by at a speed of about 34 miles a second. That’s speedy enough to traverse the continental US in a little more than a minute. As a result, JunoCam strafed the planet with a series of images. Candice Hansen, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, told Business Insider in an email that “this will not be the only flyover of the Great Red Spot planned, but it is the closest.”

These remarkable 3D images show the depth of the storm’s cloud layers. Winds in the Great Red Spot blow at speeds of about 400 mph.

NASA’s
NASA-JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Carlos N. Jiménez (CC BY)

This composite image places one of Juno’s new detailed images of the Great Red Spot on top of an image of the planet captured by Voyager 1 in 1979.

The image from Voyager was taken from a distance of nearly 25 million miles (40 million kilometers), whereas Juno flew just about 5,600 miles (9,000 km) over the Great Red Spot. In the bottom-left corner of Voyager’s image is the moon Ganymede.

NASA’s
NASA; Voyager

Juno settled into orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Recent studies published in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters detailed a bounty of discoveries the probe had helped NASA scientists make since then. Those discoveries include “rivers” of hot ammonia.

But Juno won’t fly forever. NASA plans to plunge the spacecraft into Jupiter’s clouds in 2018 or 2019. This will prevent the probe from spreading any bacteria from Earth to the gas giant’s icy, ocean-filled moons like Europa and Ganymede.

A straight-down view of Jupiter’s pole from about 32,000 miles away reveals a blue-tinted patch of cyclonic storms that are each about 600 miles wide. For reference, the US state of Texas is about 790 miles wide.

NASA’s
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles