Up-close images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot released

NASA has released stunning new images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot that were captured earlier this week by the US space agency’s Juno spacecraft and which provides an up-close look at what is believed to be the largest and most powerful storm system in the solar system.

According to CBS News and Spaceflight Now reports, the images were captured Monday when Juno soared above the 10,000-mile wide anticyclone at an altitude of approximately 5,600 miles. That flyby reportedly lasted a total of 11 1/2 minutes and brought the spacecraft to within 2,200 miles of Jupiter’s cloud tops while it captured images using its JunoCam instrument.

enhanced color image of Jupiter's great red spot

“For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot” Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a statement. “Now we have the best pictures ever of this iconic storm.”

Bolton added that it “will take us some time to analyze all the data… to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot,” a massive storm that scientists have studied since 1830 but which some experts believe is more than 350 years old. Unprocessed versions of the new photographs were uploaded to the JunoCam website on Wednesday morning.

Can these images help solve some longstanding mysteries

Juno is a solar-powered spacecraft that launched in August 2011 and traveled to Jupiter in order to explore the gas giant, NASA explained. As part of that mission, it flies close to the cloud tops that obscure the planet’s surface, using its instruments to take images, study the auroras and find out more about the world’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

At 9:55 pm Eastern time on Monday, the spacecraft made its first-ever pass over the Great Red Spot, travelling at speeds of about 130,000 mph while using its camera and science instruments to gather data on the massive anticyclone. Once the images are processed and paired with other data from the flyby, NASA believes that they will be able to solve some longstanding mysteries about the storm, according to CBS News and Spaceflight Now.

Among the new insights scientists hope to ascertain, USA Today said, is the precise force of the storm (which features winds traveling at speeds of up to 400 mph), and whether or not the Spot is shrinking, becoming more circular and changing color, as images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope two years ago have suggested.

“Not a lot is known [about the Great Red Spot],” Bolton told CBS News on  Monday. “Here’s the largest and most fierce storm in the entire solar system and it’s lasted hundreds of years, so that’s a lot different than anything else we’ve ever studied. The question is, how can it last that long? What’s powering it, how’s it really working inside?”

“These highly-anticipated images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot are the ‘perfect storm’ of art and science. With data from Voyager, Galileo, New Horizons, Hubble and now Juno, we have a better understanding of the composition and evolution of this iconic feature,” Jim Green, the director of planetary science at the agency, added in a statement. “We are pleased to share the beauty and excitement of space science with everyone.”


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech