Images captured by two different telescopes are showing our solar system’s largest planet in a new light.
The Gemini North telescope in Hawaii and the Hubble Space Telescope have captured Jupiter in visible, infrared and ultraviolet light, revealing striking atmospheric features of the gas giant in detail. These include superstorms, massive cyclones and, of course, the Great Red Spot — the centuries-long storm in Jupiter’s atmosphere so large it could swallow Earth.
This is multiwavelength astronomy in action. Viewing a planet across different wavelengths of light can uncover otherwise invisible aspects and features. Comparing them provides a greater understanding of the gas giant, its atmosphere, particles and haze.
“The Gemini North observations were made possible by the telescope’s location within the Maunakea Science Reserve, adjacent to the summit of Maunakea,” said Mike Wong, observation team lead and planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement. “We are grateful for the privilege of observing Ka’āwela (Jupiter) from a place that is unique in both its astronomical quality and its cultural significance.”
Gemini North’s Near-InfraRed Imager provided the infrared wavelength image of Jupiter while Hubble pulled double duty using its Wide Field Camera 3 to take images in both visible and ultraviolet light.
All three images were taken at the same time on January 11, 2017, to provide a comparison.
Across the three images, Jupiter looks entirely different. The Great Red Spot almost disappears in the infrared wavelengths, but a dark region within the storm appears larger than in the visible light image. This is due to the fact that different wavelengths of light show varied structures within the storm.
Combining Hubble’s visible light images of the storm with Gemini’s infrared observations revealed that the dark features are holes in the cloud layer. In visible light, these appear dark. But in thermal infrared, researchers could see that through the holes, the brightness of Jupiter’s heat escapes into space. Normally, this process is blocked by Jupiter’s massive clouds.
Check out the comparison between the glowing infrared image of Jupiter contrasted with the much more mellow visible light image in the slider below.
In infrared, Jupiter’s warm layers deep beneath the clouds appear to glow through cloud gaps.
Wong compared the infrared image of Jupiter to a jack-o’-lantern.
Meanwhile, the planet’s famed bands of clouds are visible in all three wavelengths.
The Red Spot Jr., called Oval BA by scientists, is a storm below the Great Red Spot that makes an appearance across the visible and ultraviolet images. It formed when three storms merged together in 2000.
See what differences you can spot in the ultraviolet and visible light images in the slider below.
Red Spot Jr. has been fading back to white over the last few years. This is the spot’s original color before it turned red in 2006. But the core of this storm is a dark red, which could suggest that Red Spot Jr. is about to be redder again in the future, like the Great Red Spot.
Above this turbulent region in the visible image, there is also a superstorm that looks like a swirly white streak.
There is another one visible in Jupiter’s northern hemisphere in the infrared image. This particular streak is thought to be a cyclonic vortex, or a series of vortices, that extend for nearly 45,000 miles from east to west. In visible light, this looks dark brown. When NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft imaged Jupiter in 1979, scientists called these features “brown barges.” Then, in ultraviolet light, these vortices almost disappear.
Beneath these, there are large hotspots visible in the infrared image.
Combined, the three different perspectives help scientists understand Jupiter’s intriguing clouds layered in its atmosphere. The images can also be compared with the observations taken by the Juno mission, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016.
Jupiter is known for its massive storms, but trying to peer inside them requires teamwork by the Juno spacecraft, Hubble and Gemini North. Collective observations from this dream team have produced stunning images and revealed what’s happening inside Jupiter’s giant, continuous storms.
Jupiter’s storms are monsters. Their thunderhead clouds can extend 40 miles from base to top, which is five times the height of Earth’s thunderheads. Jupiter’s lightning packs a punch, too, as much as three times the energy in so-called “superbolts,” the most powerful lightning strikes, on Earth.
Wong and his team have used this collective data to understand how lightning storms form on Jupiter, probe holes in the clouds of the Great Red Spot, and peer into deeper layers of the planet’s atmosphere normally obscured from view.
“Juno detected a whole bunch of lightning flashes at radio wavelengths that are associated with cyclones,” Wong said. “And we interpreted the data to show that when you have active convection, which is generating the lightning, you have this particular situation where there’s three types of clouds all jumbled together in one place: the really tall convective towers, clearings where Gemini detects bright emission, and deep water clouds.”
Lightning is likely occurring in the deep water clouds, caused by moist convection. Jupiter’s lightning and large storms form both in and around large convective cells positioned over deep clouds.
While multiple robotic space missions have visited Jupiter, researchers still have many questions about how this gas giant formed and processes that occur on the planet.
Hubble and Gemini’s support during the Juno mission also gives researchers a window into Jupiter’s weather overall, like wind patterns, atmospheric waves and cyclones, as well as its gases and heat.
This data set is also the basis for future research Wong is working on to determine how and why the Great Red Spot appears to be shrinking.
While scientists don’t know why, this downsizing of the storm has been occurring since astronomers began observing it and recording measurements since 1930.
The gas giant has an atmosphere that’s constantly in motion, so long-term observation campaigns allow for tracking changes on Jupiter over time. Scientists are eager to see what surprises Jupiter has in store for the future.