Five years after beginning its very long journey, NASA’s Juno spacecraft has sent back photos and scientific data of Jupiter for the first time. For centuries it was known that Jupiter, the largest planet of the solar system, was strange and weird. But we may have underestimated just how weird. The gas giant has a lumpy magnetic field, polar storms as big as Earth, and auroras are unlike anything scientists have ever seen.
NASA’s Juno probe entered orbit around Jupiter a year ago, and has been gathering data ever since. Now the space agency is releasing spectacular images, such as this one showing Juptier’s south pole. It took three passes just to get a complete image of the planet’s south pole, roiling with storms as large as Mars. Scientists were surprised to see that the planet’s distinct bands don’t extend to the pole, and are instead replaced by tempestuous swirls.
The mission has also sent back data on Jupiter’s magnetic field, which we knew beforehand was the strongest in the solar system but thought to be much like our own compass-directing fields. But it’s even more intense than researchers thought and irregularly lumpy. In some places it’s 10 times stronger than the strongest magnetic fields of Earth. And, like our planet, Jupiter has northern and southern lights, but as of now, its auroras look to be quite different from our own.
“We knew, going in, that Jupiter would throw us some curves,” Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a press release, “But now that we are here we are finding that Jupiter can throw the heat, as well as knuckleballs and sliders. There is so much going on here that we didn’t expect that we have had to take a step back and begin to rethink of this as a whole new Jupiter.”
The findings from this first pass are being released this week in 46 papers published in Science and Geophysical Research Letters. And the next flyby is scheduled for July 11th when Juno will fly over the iconic Great Red Spot.
Images by (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles)