NASA Probe Takes First-Ever Close-Up Images Of Jupiter's North Pole

Sep 2, 2016
Originally published on September 2, 2016 4:40 pm

NASA has released the first close-up images ever taken of Jupiter's north pole. They were photographed by the Juno spacecraft now in orbit around the gas giant.

The north pole looks totally different from the rest of the planet. "It's bluer in color up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms," Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute, says in a NASA statement on Friday.

"This image is hardly recognizable as Jupiter," he says. "We're seeing signs that the clouds have shadows, possibly indicating that the clouds are at a higher altitude than other features."

NASA also released an image of Jupiter's southern aurora, a unique view that could be captured only by a spacecraft close to Jupiter. The aurora occurs when energized particles from the sun interact with Jupiter's atmosphere near the planet's poles.

The space agency also released audio of what the aurora sounds like if you convert it to a frequency the human ear can hear.

The pictures and data were collected Aug. 27, when Juno made the first of some three dozen scheduled close encounters with Jupiter. At its closest approach, the spacecraft was a mere 2,500 miles above the planet's cloud tops.

Juno arrived at Jupiter on July 4. But its orbits are unusual. The probe flies near the planet for only a few hours at a time, spending the vast majority of each orbit far away from Jupiter. That's because of the harsh radiation environment close to the planet — harsh enough to fry Juno's electronics if it hangs around too long.

But it's during those close-ups that Juno can get the most detailed view of Jupiter: what its magnetic and gravitational fields are like, whether it has a solid core, how much water there might be hiding beneath the cloud tops — the kind of information planetary scientists are most eager to get.

Juno is supposed to make 35 more flybys before the mission ends in 2018. Right now, the probe is in an orbit that takes some 53 days to make a single revolution. Ultimately, that will be cut to 14 days. But the bottom line is it will take some months before Juno can compile the clear picture of Jupiter that it was sent to get.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, NASA released the first close-up pictures ever taken of Jupiter's north pole. The space agency also released a striking image of a colorful display near the planet's south pole. They were taken by the Juno spacecraft, now in orbit around the gas giant. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The north pole looks totally different from the rest of the planet. It's bluer in color. You can see a lot of storms. And it's missing the bands of clouds you can see it lower latitudes. Jack Connerney of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is an investigator on the Juno mission.

JACK CONNERNEY: It looks a little squirrelly up there, to be honest with you. That's the best way I could describe it.

PALCA: Juno took the picture of Jupiter's north pole last Saturday when the spacecraft was 48,000 miles above the cloud tops. NASA also released an infrared image of Jupiter's southern aurora. The aurora occurs when energized particles from the sun interact with Jupiter's atmosphere near the planet's poles. In case you're interested, this is what an aurora sounds like if you convert it to a frequency the human ear can hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF AURORA)

PALCA: Juno went into orbit around Jupiter on July 4. But it was an unusual orbit. Not only did it fly over the poles, it also only flies close to the planet for a few hours at a time, spending the vast majority of each orbit flying far away from Jupiter. The reason for that odd orbit is the harsh radiation environment near the planet that would fry the spacecraft's electronics if it hung around too long. But it's the close-up time where Juno can get the most detailed picture of Jupiter - what it's magnetic and gravitational fields are like, whether it has a solid core and how much water there might be hiding beneath the cloud tops.

Juno is supposed to make 35 more close flybys before the mission ends in 2018. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.