The Juno spacecraft began its long journey to Jupiter in 2011. Waking up in 2016 it underwent a successful orbit injection on July 4th. Now after nearly a year of waiting, the public finally gets to see the first fruits of the mission. It has certainly been worth the wait.
A new Jupiter, seen from a distance of 52,000 Km, has a vivid and chaotic southern pole in the above image. Swirling storms thousands of kilometres across whirl around one another in a sea of gaseous ammonia clouds. Will the system remain chaotic? Or will it change a year from now, the next time Juno flies past. As with most new and exciting science, the data leads us to a plethora of new questions. “We’re puzzled as to how they could be formed, how stable the configuration is, and why Jupiter’s north pole doesn’t look like the south pole,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “We’re questioning whether this is a dynamic system, and are we seeing just one stage, and over the next year, we’re going to watch it disappear, or is this a stable configuration and these storms are circulating around one another?”
Though interesting, not all of Juno’s work is focussed on Jupiter’s swirling cloud systems. A major component of the mission is the in-depth study of Jupiter’s massive magnetic fields, and the first bits of data are already shaking up our view of the planet. “Juno is giving us a view of the magnetic field close to Jupiter that we’ve never had before,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator and the lead for the mission’s magnetic field investigation at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Already we see that the magnetic field looks lumpy: it is stronger in some places and weaker in others. This uneven distribution suggests that the field might be generated by dynamo action closer to the surface, above the layer of metallic hydrogen. Every flyby we execute gets us closer to determining where and how Jupiter’s dynamo works.”
These close flybys, bringing Juno within 4,200 Km of Jupiter’s cloud tops, occur every 53 days, allowing the instruments on board to gather as much data as they can in 2 hours before the craft swings farther away. The distant swings allow Juno to move far from the dangerous magnetic fields where it can send data safely back to Earth, before plunging back toward the planet for more.
The iconic red and white bands of Jupiter seen through a telescope are really only the tip of the iceberg. The depth of the planet’s beauty and detail are much greater than one would expect from an Earthbound view. By revealing this beauty, along with a new scientific understanding, Juno is showing us a new Jupiter, worthy of it’s title of ‘King’ of our solar system.