Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is revealed in stunning pictures from NASA’s Juno mission

A NASA probe has begun transmitting images of Jupiter’s vast, churning surface, following a successful close pass over the planet’s 10,000-mile wide Great Red Spot.

The Juno spacecraft logged its journey over Jupiter’s Great Red Spot – a continual storm that’s been observed by humans since 1830 – on Tuesday morning at 2.55am BST. At its lowest point, NASA’s probe was just 5,600 miles (9,000 km) above the clouds of Jupiter’s most iconic feature.

Juno launched in August 2011 to probe beneath Jupiter’s obscuring cloud cover and study its auroras. A flyby in April revealed that the Great Red Spot measures 10,159 miles (16,350km) in width, making it 1.3 times as wide as Earth, but it appears to be shrinking. Studying the storm can reveal clues about Jupiter’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

 The data recorded by the probe’s sensors are expected to take days to be delivered back to scientists on Earth, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. From there, it will take even longer until researchers are able to sift through the raw material and make sense of what Juno has seen.

NASA has, however, released the first raw images of the planet giving us our closest look yet of Jupiter’s enormous vortex. These images are released in this format to allow astronomers and photographers to process them. All of the shots were captured by Junocam, a wide-angle camera in polar orbit around the giant planet.

Jupiter Great Red Spot extended

Its four-colour images can reveal convective clouds and lightning in thunderstorms and even determine the heights of the clouds. By working with the onboard radiometer, this camera can additionally help NASA identify any unusual atmospheric conditions such as hotspots.

“For generations, people from all over the world and all walks of life have marvelled over the Great Red Spot,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from NASA’s Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. 

The hope is that Juno’s findings will help to unlock the mysteries around the Great Red Spot’s existence ­– what formed it in the first place, how has it been raging for so long, and why is it red? Scientists believe the storm is a result of a combination of cooling gases and planet rotation, but its precise mechanics are unknown, as is the reason for its crimson appearance.

“This is a storm bigger than the entire Earth. It’s been there for hundreds of years. We want to know what makes it tick,” said Steve Levin, the lead project scientist for the Juno mission at JPL.

Juno’s work isn’t done yet. This week’s flyover was the latest of 12 scheduled by NASA for the probe, with the next one booked for 1 September.

Images:  NASA, JPL-Caltech, SwRI, MSSS, Roman Tkachenko

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