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OUT OF THIS WORLD | What's Up In Space - a weekly look at the biggest news coming down to Earth from space

NEW photos from Great Red Spot arrive early, are spectacular

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, July 12, 2017, 12:02 PM - They're here! Jupiter's Great Red Spot has been visible for hundreds of years, and now, thanks to NASA's Juno spacecraft, we have our closest look at it, yet!

This story has been updated.

On Monday, NASA's Juno spacecraft - in orbit around Jupiter since last July - flew right over the planet's giant storm, to deliver back to Earth high-definition photos and observations. The Great Red Spot is one of the most well-known features in our solar system, and is a prime example of what weather looks like, when taken to the extreme.

"Jupiter's mysterious Great Red Spot is probably the best-known feature of Jupiter," Scott Bolton, the principal investigator of the Juno mission, said in a NASA press release. "This monumental storm has raged on the solar system's biggest planet for centuries. Now, Juno and her cloud-penetrating science instruments will dive in to see how deep the roots of this storm go, and help us understand how this giant storm works and what makes it so special."

According to NASA:

The data collection of the Great Red Spot is part of Juno's sixth science flyby over Jupiter's mysterious cloud tops. Perijove (the point at which an orbit comes closest to Jupiter's center) will be on Monday, July 10, at 6:55 p.m. PDT (9:55 p.m. EDT). At the time of perijove, Juno will be about 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) above the planet's cloud tops. Eleven minutes and 33 seconds later, Juno will have covered another 24,713 miles (39,771 kilometers) and will be directly above the coiling crimson cloud tops of Jupiter's Great Red Spot. The spacecraft will pass about 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers) above the Giant Red Spot clouds. All eight of the spacecraft's instruments as well as its imager, JunoCam, will be on during the flyby.

Well, the initial estimate was that we wouldn't see the new images until Friday, but NASA just released some of the first, today!

The Great Red Spot is a huge, Earth-dwarfing, anti-cyclonic storm has been churning away in Jupiter's southern hemisphere for centuries. It is called "anti-cyclonic" because its winds swirl in a counter-clockwise direction, opposite to how they would flow in a cyclonic hurricane in Earth's southern hemisphere. Essentially, the Spot is an immense high-pressure system, slowly swirling in relatively the same position in Jupiter's atmosphere, trapped in place by the jet streams to the north and south of it.

Humanity has been gazing at it since telescopes were invented, allowing astronomers to finally resolve Jupiter as a disk, rather than a point of light in the sky. As our telescopes improved, our understanding of this storm grew, as did our fascination with it, as it has never failed to disappoint. Based just on our observations, it has been in existence for over 300 years, and quite likely has been there for far longer.

Our very first close-up look at the storm came on February 25, 1979, when NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft swung by Jupiter for a gravity assist towards the outer solar system.

The Great Red Spot, courtesy Voyager 1. Credit: NASA/JPL

The image above, a zoomed-in section of a larger picture taken with Voyager 1's Imaging Science Subsystem instrument, was snapped from a distance of about 5.7 million kilometres (over 3,500,000 miles). The details, even at that distance, are quite striking, owing to the size of the storm and the quality of Voyager's telescope, although some pixelation is still evident.

After that, the Great Red Spot became an irresistible target for the Hubble Space Telescope, when it was launched into low-Earth orbit in 1995.

Hubble Space Telescope views of Jupiter and its Great Red Spot from 1995, 2009 and 2014, showing how the spot is shrinking over time. Credit: NASA/ESA

Just a year after Hubble wow'd us with its first views of this Earth-swallowing storm, NASA's Galileo spacecraft - sent to investigate the planet and its largest moons - gave us this image:

Galileo's view of the Great Red Spot from June 26, 1996. Credit: NASA/JPL

Not to be left out, Cassini - currently in its final weeks of orbiting Saturn - took this image as it passed by Jupiter in 2000, from 10 million kilometres (6,250,000 miles) away:

The Great Red Spot, via Cassini, on December 29, 2000. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Now, with Juno having been in orbit for just over a year (it arrived on July 4, 2016), and having made six close passes so far over Jupiter's cloud layers (known as "perijove"), this seventh pass - its sixth science perijove - lined up perfectly to have the spacecraft fly directly over the Great Red Spot, at a distance of just 9,000 km (5,600 miles)!

Here are the first raw image results from Juno!




The curved edges of the images are due to the spherical view of the planet being mapped onto a flat surface, similar to what happens when using certain map projections for Earth.

Want more? Check out the perijove 7 image sets on the Juno page of the Southwest Research Institute. Processed images will be released soon, like the ones below, as the online citizen science community takes advantage of this new resource.

You can even download the raw images and produce some of your own!

Source: NASA | SwRI

Watch Below: Hubble snaps amazing portrait of Jupiter at Opposition

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