Polar cyclones. A huge magnetic field. A whole new Jupiter?
When Mrs. Collins showed me the National Geographic book titled Our Solar System—I was only six—she cracked it open to the centerfold. The page was bright red. With a finger, she traced over the copper vortex; I almost fell in as I looked closely at the picture. She said, “Three Earths could fit inside this Great Red Spot.” She was talking about the iconic storm on Jupiter, a red anticyclone that has been raging for over 300 years. That fact has dazzled me ever since. I thought: How could I matter if three of me and my family and my house and block, town, state and entire planet could fit into that storm?
Images of objects in space have been known to inspire an emotional response. For some, the black square littered with twinkling galaxies of the Hubble Deep Field halts the mind, placing us as just one average galaxy amongst thousands of others. For many, the grooved rings of Saturn are what evoke that feeling of awe. For me, it’s how the bands of Jupiter melt together like watercolors, how the planet floats in the blackness of space, seemingly alone, enshrouded by cresting waves of ammonia clouds.
Jupiter, king of the Roman gods, was a mischievous ruler. He threw lightning bolts at Earth and deafened the ears of Romans with claps of thunder. To shield his behavior from the rest of the world, he drew a thick cloud cover over himself. The planet Jupiter, named after the god, is the largest planet in our solar system—approximately 1,300 Earths could fill this giant body. It’s enveloped in a thick atmosphere and Earth-sized tempests, such that we can only see colored belts of winds topped with cotton candy clouds, and an iconic vermillion storm. Oddly enough, we are like the modern day plebeians of the solar system—we have yet to see below this very effective shield.
What we do know: Jupiter played a critical role in the formation of our solar system. When our sun was young and was still enveloped by a disc of gas and debris, Jupiter, or what would become Jupiter, stole a large portion of this material from our solar nebula—the cloud of dust that created all of us. Besides the sun, Jupiter took more than any other planetary body, and as a result, has chemistry similar to the sun. This dance of debris and elements took millions of years, likely creating collisions between the baby planets closest to the sun (that includes us) and Jupiter. To learn more about Jupiter would mean learning more about the origins of the Earth.
There is still so much we don’t know about this planet, despite five previous missions to the Jovian system. For one, scientists are still unsure about the composition and consistency of Jupiter’s core. The great red spot has been observed for over 300 years but scientists were unsure of its depth and how it has sustained itself for so long. They also have no idea what fuels its enormous magnetic field; As well, we don’t know the reasons for Jupiter’s complex weather system.
According to myth, there was only one god endowed with the ability to see through Jupiter’s clouds—his wife and queen of the gods, Juno.
In 1979, NASA’s Voyager spacecraft flew past Jupiter while on its tour of the solar system. After the flyby, NASA released a video montage of the approach. Scott Bolton was an undergraduate in college when he saw these photos for the first time. The black and white film resembled the opening of a Twilight Zone episode—the tempestuous bands of the planet moved in opposite directions, clouds arched over each other in a continuous loop, the iconic storm swirled, facing the viewer head-on. He was hooked. Thirty some odd years later, Scott would build his very own mission to Jupiter called Juno.
This new Jovian mission was meant to find out, finally, what was hidden below the clouds.
When Scott was appointed the Principal Investigator, he knew that they needed a suite of instruments to peer below the atmosphere of Jupiter and to study the magnetic field. Juno would piece together Jupiter’s formation story. By studying it more closely than any other missions had, Juno would gather information on how the planet evolved as well as how it was changing.
But while the mission proposal was in progress, NASA hinted to Scott that a camera might be an unnecessary cost and cargo. They suggested Scott consider leaving it off. After all, a camera would serve no scientific purpose.
“The kind of science that was high priority was the science that Juno was doing,” says Bolton, “but it didn’t include taking pictures of the atmosphere. You didn’t really need a camera to satisfy those science objectives, you needed other instruments. But none of the team, including me, could imagine that we would go to Jupiter and get that close to the planet and not take a picture to see what it looked like! We were going to be orbiting the poles. We were going to go closer than anyone had ever gone before.”
Scott and the team decided they would take the risk and leave the camera on as a part of the mission proposal. When NASA approved the mission, camera and all, Scott was determined to build the most affordable, high-functioning camera he could find, and that’s exactly what he did.
Juno launched in 2011, began orbiting Jupiter in 2016, and will continue in orbit until 2020. Every fifty-three days, Juno swings by the planet and every fifty-three days, it sends back a slew of data—instrument readouts from the magnetometer studying the behavior of the magnetic field, to infrared measurements, spying on the interior workings of the planet. This is the stuff hidden below the atmosphere. And every fifty-three days, it also sends back a new batch of photos.
In 2017, as Scott and the team awaited the very first set of images, they didn’t know what to expect. “Half of us were betting that when we got really close, we would see blurry clouds. Maybe those colors would mix and you wouldn’t get such high definition. Nobody knew what we would see.”
In July of that year, Juno sent back the first packet of data. “We were sitting with 200 people,” says Scott, “and everybody knew we threw the camera on there just to see what it looked like. But we put the first picture of the south pole up and we were speechless. Everybody just looked at it and went ‘OH MY GOD.’ We were in awe.”
To display and share the images, the team created a gallery on the mission’s website. They wanted artists to have access to all the data and metadata from each picture Juno took. This was the team’s way of connecting the public with the mission. It was artistic outreach at its best. As a result, the Jupiter that exists now is unlike what we’ve ever seen before. Jupiter’s south pole had a bluish tint! The photos also revealed clusters of cyclones orbiting the north and south poles, a feature that still perplexes the team.
In other images, flecks of white clouds hover high above the rest of the atmosphere, a feature that, Scott Bolton says, “shouldn’t be there.” New details show storms that weave up and around the surface, seemingly dipping deeper into the atmosphere as if Van Gogh himself dipped his brush into paint and lovingly, meticulously, layered on the swirls.
So, to the team’s surprise, these breathtaking images have turned out to have scientific value after all. Not only do they reveal new information, they’ve also helped establish connections between pieces of data. The photos have connected, for example, that the cyclones and storm patterns are linked to lightning that scientists had seen in infrared from previous missions—lightning that was far below the cloud tops. And the odd clouds and changing weather patterns are forcing scientists to rethink their understanding of Jupiter’s climate.
As Scott Bolton says, the data so far has been a “game changer.” After just the first few orbits, Juno found that Jupiter’s magnetic field is twice as big as we thought, and that the core of Jupiter might be “fuzzy” and is only partially intact. And that iconic red storm? They now know its roots are as deep as 200 miles below the atmosphere. “There is so much going on here that we didn’t expect, that we have had to take a step back and begin to think of this as a whole new Jupiter.”
Shannon Stirone is a freelance writer based in the Bay Area. She writes about science, space and policy for The Atlantic, New Republic, Wired and others.