In times when hardly anyone looks beyond the world around them, NASA’s Juno spacecraft is sending back gigantic and unprecedented panoramas of enigmatic planet Jupiter.
NASA, and the researchers who use its data, are trying to find out more about how the gas giant planet, with an interior hotter than the surface of the Sun, actually works, and in the process perhaps pick up on clues as to how taming such forces could lead to energy technology breakthroughs on Earth.
Don’t ask, don’t learn. The image (above) of the southern latitudes of Jupiter made during the recent fourth close pass of its cloud tops by NASA probe Juno shows a very different perspective than the full face views from Earth, in which it appears as a huge rapidly rotating planet with distinct bands of clouds.
The links found on this Astronomy Photo of the Day page lead to many layers of additional information about the Juno mission and the knowledge already amassed about Jupiter since the age of space probes to other parts of the solar system began. (The initial link is also overwritten with each new APOD post, but there is an archive on the site.)
The subtle colours of the Juno image are as they might be seen by human eyes at such close range to Jupiter (suitably sustained by the radiation shields and life support systems of a spacecraft that defies current technology, and may do so for a very long time).
Although Jupiter has 318 times the mass of Earth, it covers such an immense volume of space that if you really could stand stationary on the top of its convoluted clouds tops you would experience only 2.4 times the force of gravity on the surface of our planet. ‘Only’, and not for long.
The scale difference between Earth and Jupiter is shown below, the view of Earth being photographed by the crew of Apollo 17, the last manned moon mission, in 1972. Jupiter isn’t close to being a ‘failed’ star, as some suggest. Physics tells us that it is only one eightieth as massive as needed for the deep core of a concentration of hydrogen gases to ignite into a true star driven by nuclear fusion.
The Juno probe, which NASA hopes will survive some dozens of more close passes around Jupiter, may determine if the giant planet has a solid core, or a more complex interior in which various elements behave like super critical dense fluids creating powerful electromagnetic fields.
Jupiter has 67 known moons, and other exploratory missions are being planned to determine if a few of the larger ones might harbor life forms.