Juno’s make-or-break moment this summer was a nail biter. Since successfully wiggling into Jupiter’s orbit, the Juno probe made its first big sweep of Jupiter, and this week NASA released early images of the planet’s never-before-imaged poles. The data is spectacular — and spectacularly dense.
The spacecraft captured portions of the gas giant for six hours but downloading the six megabytes of data took one-and-a-half days. The flyby was the first of 37 and captured the top row below on August 27, just a couple of hours before its closest approach. JunoCam is a camera unlike most other cosmic cameras because of it’s designed to work with Juno’s frequent rotations, which occur three times a minute.
The top row in the montage above shows Juno’s arrival, and the bottom is the outbound leg of the journey the next day, August 28. The images were taken about 10 hours apart, which is about the time it takes for Jupiter to rotate once. If you spot a black dot, that’s the shadow of one of the Galilean moons.
Juno follows something called a polar orbit, which passes over the poles, and each orbit has been meticulously planned to pass over a different section of Jupiter. It’ll get so close to the cloud tops that if Jupiter were a basketball, the approach would be less than a centimeter from it. But that proximity comes with a price, according to NASA. The magnetic field around Jupiter has such severe radiation that the craft will be bombarded with the equivalent of 100 million dental x-rays. The planned orbits are crafty, though: Juno gets what it needs and backs off from the equator’s radiation belts after every flyby.
The poles are tumultuous, and as Juno’s principal investigator Scott Bolton said in a statement, it’s not like anything we’ve ever seen or clearly imaged before in our solar system. Jupiter’s mid-section is divvied into colorful belts, zones, and other phenomena, but both north and south poles have storms raging in a range of sizes that resemble hurricanes.
It’s been a while since we’ve even gotten close to the same perspectives; the last time was when the Pioneer 11 sailed past Jupiter back in 1974, and Cassini actually snagged narrow-angle images in 2000 when it passed by on its way to see Saturn.
You can follow Juno is in real-time or watch replays of big events with an interactive NASA app called Eyes on the Solar System. Download it here.