Spacecraft set to fly over Jupiter’s ‘centuries-old’ giant storm

10 Jul 2017

The Great Red Spot on Jupiter. Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

NASA’s investigation of Jupiter is about to get a whole lot more interesting, with the Great Red Spot the source of the latest attention.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter for one year now, with its first birthday celebrated by a key mission.

Tomorrow (11 July), Juno will fly directly over Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, one of the most iconic elements of our entire solar system.

Future Human

Measuring around 16,000km wide, the Great Red Spot has been monitored by astronomers since 1830. It has been the source of intrigue in the intervening period, with estimates now that the storm has raged for 350 years.

For example, the latest research links the storm to Jupiter’s surprisingly warm atmosphere, which is similar to Earth’s, despite being five times farther from the sun.

Though even that research, detailed as it was, came before Juno started sending back readings as it orbited the planet.

And now, the spacecraft is set to deliver some of the most valuable Jupiter-related information ever.

Best-known feature

“Jupiter’s mysterious Great Red Spot is probably the best-known feature of Jupiter,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

“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.”

Juno has so far completed five tours over Jupiter’s cloud tops, with this data collection part of the sixth trip.

The moment Juno reaches its closest point to the Great Red Spot will be around 3am IST on 11 July.

Rick Nybakken, project manager for Juno from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said: “The success of science collection at Jupiter is a testament to the dedication, creativity and technical abilities of the NASA-Juno team.

“Each new orbit brings us closer to the heart of Jupiter’s radiation belt but so far, the spacecraft has weathered the storm of electrons surrounding Jupiter better than we could have ever imagined.”

This will be one of the biggest Jupiter-related events in a long time.

Astronomers are using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to study auroras on the poles of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter, via NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols

Astronomers are using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to study auroras on the poles of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter. Image: NASA, ESA and J Nichols

Go Juno

Last summer, Jupiter’s “dramatic” auroras on the planet’s poles were captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

To go along with the Great Red Spot, these auroras are added weather examples that will go some way towards our understanding of a truly fascinating planet.

Auroras are created when high-energy particles enter a planet’s atmosphere near its magnetic poles. They collide with atoms of gas and produce remarkable light shows, as seen annually on Earth.

Given that the make-up of Jupiter’s atmosphere is quite different to ours, with immense storms charged with electricity, NASA researchers are curious as to what differences there are throughout the weather cycle.

Juno is helping them work out just that.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic