Stunning Close-Up Images of Jupiter, Its Storms, and a Dolphin Cloud
Stunning Close-Up Images of Jupiter, Its Storms, and a Dolphin Cloud
NASA’s Juno mission helps scientists understand the largest planet—and our own
Which planet besides Earth fascinates us the most? Mars has always been intriguing, mostly because it’s close enough to tease us with the possibilities of alien life. Saturn has the rings, of course. Pluto can’t decide if it is or isn’t an actual planet. But Jupiter has it all. It’s the largest planet by some distance—more than twice as massive as all the other planets combined—and has more than 75 moons. The Earth could fit inside Jupiter 1,300 times over. It’s the fastest spinning planet, rotating once every 10 hours. And then there is the red spot, an endless source of fascination and curiosity.
In recent months, incredible images of Jupiter, resembling abstract watercolor paintings, have emerged from NASA through its Juno mission. And the beneficiaries of these incredibly detailed photographs are scientists, like Marissa Vogt, who came to Boston University in 2014 as a postdoc and is now a senior research scientist in the Center for Space Physics.
Vogt says she was selected as a participating scientist for Juno in 2019 and again in 2021, when Juno’s mission was extended. She explains that participating scientists join NASA missions to “provide expertise on a specific topic or investigation”—and Vogt’s specialist subjects are planetary magnetic fields and auroras.
For perspective on how long a Jupiter mission takes, the Juno spacecraft launched August 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and first entered Jupiter’s orbit five years later, on July 4, 2016. The mission has allowed scientists to peer, for the first time, below Jupiter’s dense cloud cover to reveal the story of “Jupiter’s formation and evolution,” according to NASA, and to understand more about the origins of the solar system.
The Brink caught up with Vogt to talk about the Juno mission and the incredible images that have emerged.
With Marissa Vogt
The Brink: What do you hope to take away from Juno?
Marissa Vogt: My goal is to use Juno magnetic field and plasma measurements to understand the structure and dynamics of Jupiter’s magnetosphere. When a planet’s magnetic field interacts with plasma flowing in the solar wind, it forms a cavity in space, called a magnetosphere, which shields the planet from some of the material and radiation flowing in the solar wind. The flowing solar wind compresses the planet’s magnetic field on the day side and stretches it on the night side, forming a long “magnetotail.” I am interested in understanding the dynamics of planetary magnetotails and I have been using Juno data to study Jupiter’s magnetotail, as well as the link between processes in Jupiter’s magnetosphere and its aurora. [Read more about Vogt’s work here.]
The Brink: The Juno mission launched in 2011, arrived at Jupiter in 2016, and is now on an extended mission. Can you share a few of the most interesting or surprising findings?
Marissa Vogt: Juno has really provided an unprecedented view of the whole Jupiter system, including Jupiter’s interior, atmosphere, magnetosphere, moons. I’m really interested in Jupiter’s aurora, and we’ve been able to see the aurora from a totally new perspective than we see it from Earth, where we can really only see the part of the planet that is pointing toward the sun. There has also been a superb Earth-based observing campaign to make coordinated observations of Jupiter’s aurora and atmosphere while Juno is collecting data from various parts of Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Those observations have helped us understand, for the first time, the processes responsible for Jupiter’s X-ray aurora.
Juno flew past Jupiter’s moon Ganymede twice last year. Ganymede is the biggest moon in the solar system and is a really interesting place for those of us who like magnetic fields and plasma: Ganymede actually has its own internal magnetic field that creates its own little magnetosphere inside of Jupiter’s magnetosphere. We collected some great data from Ganymede’s magnetosphere and aurora and the science team is busy preparing papers on those results that will hopefully be published early this year.
The Brink: When we look at these incredible images of Jupiter, can you tell us some of the things we are looking at?
Marissa Vogt: Some images come from JunoCam, a visible camera that was included on the spacecraft for public outreach and education efforts—though it’s been producing some really great science, too, like looking at the circumpolar cyclones. These images show different cloud and storm systems and provide a great view of the evolution of Jupiter’s atmosphere.
We’ve seen some new storms unexpectedly develop on Jupiter, including something called Clyde’s spot that was first observed in 2020 by an amateur astronomer here on Earth, then studied in more detail with JunoCam images. Juno has other instruments that allow us to look inside the cloud layers to examine Jupiter’s winds and make other measurements that help us learn more about the planet’s interior.
One of the things I love most about the JunoCam images is that many of them are processed by so-called citizen scientists from the general public. Some of these folks have technical backgrounds, but don’t specifically work in planetary science or aerospace professionally; whatever their backgrounds, the citizen scientists have been producing really beautiful images. We’ve seen all kinds of fascinating cloud shapes, including a dolphin!
The Brink: Can you talk about how your findings about Jupiter might be applied to science back here on Earth, and how scientists hope to use these findings?
Marissa Vogt: From a space physics perspective, it’s really exciting to look at data from other planets because we see the same fundamental physical processes occurring there as we do on Earth, but in totally different environments.
For example, Jupiter’s environment is really unique because most of the plasma inside the magnetosphere comes from the volcanic moon Io and not from the solar wind. So, the composition of the plasma is different. The way the plasma circulates through the magnetosphere is a little different at each planet, but there is a common physical process that releases mass and energy from each system, called magnetotail reconnection, which I have been studying with Juno. Similarly, Juno has seen a type of electric potential signature, called an inverted V, that is involved in producing aurora on Earth—and has also been seen on Mars. Though, so far, it seems like these potentials play different roles at each planet in terms of their significance in producing the auroral emissions.
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