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New Image Gives a Vibrant Glimpse of Jupiter’s Atmosphere

Next week NASA’s Juno spacecraft will–hopefully–enter into a loopy orbit around Jupiter after spending five years on a 3000 million-kilometer voyage to the planet. The $1.1 billion mission aims to collect information about Jupiter’s interior, and ahead of its arrival astronomers have captured stunning infrared images of the planet’s changing atmosphere.

It might seem a tad contradictory to photograph Jupiter with Earth-bound telescopes immediately before the arrival of Juno, but given that one of the spacecraft’s jobs will be to monitor Jupiter’s atmosphere, astronomers wanted to get a baseline sense of what to expect.

False color images of Jupiter's atmosphere.

False color images of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

To capture these images, researchers from the European Southern Observatory utilized the VISIR instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope array. This instrument captures infrared light from objects in space–the infrared light cuts through atmospheric dust and generates clearer images.

Leigh Fletcher, who worked with the ESO to capture the image, explained in a statement:

These maps will help set the scene for what Juno will witness in the coming months. Observations at different wavelengths across the infrared spectrum allow us to piece together a three-dimensional picture of how energy and material are transported upwards through the atmosphere.

The ESO then matched their high-tech equipment with a decidedly lower-tech method of image capturing; they used a technique known as “lucky imaging.” In lucky imaging, thousands of short exposure frames are shot, most of which show nothing of much use. But, a few “lucky” frames come out clear, and can be stitched together to provide useful information.

This view compares a lucky imaging view of Jupiter from VISIR (left) at infrared wavelengths with a very sharp amateur image in visible light from about the same time (right).

This view compares a lucky imaging view of Jupiter from VISIR (left) at infrared wavelengths with a very sharp amateur image in visible light from about the same time (right).

In this case, what they captured was a glimpse of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere, with cooler gas clouds rippling upwards. What we don’t yet know is why this happens. But when Juno starts sending its datasets back to Earth, researchers hope to be able to create a 3-D atmospheric map that will tell us more about Jupiter’s global thermal structure, cloud cover and distribution of gaseous species.