Most images of Jupiter come from far enough away that its upper atmosphere is usually seen as bands of clouds. However, a recent close-up of Mars taken by the orbiting probe Juno shows a more complex picture of its northern hemisphere. The swirls of cloud formations look more like a real-life version of a Van Gogh picture than the familiar yellow, orange and red bands of Jupiter.
This is one of the benefits of having a spacecraft that Juno’s project manager, Rick Nybakken, described as being “right on top of Jupiter.” Juno orbits Jupiter in an elliptical orbit that can bring it as close as 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles) above the cloudy “surface” of the planetary atmosphere. This means that pictures like this one, taken on December 11, 2016 by Juno’s visible light camera, can be taken with a higher resolution than images taken using telescopes on Earth or in Earth orbit.
This is one of the images that were processed by citizen scientists. These citizen scientists are essentially volunteers who select regions of Jupiter that they would like to photograph and assemble the images from raw data transmitted back to Earth by Juno. They can also select which images they want to take using the visible light camera, called JunoCam. Scientist Candy Hansen referred to the process as “science in a fishbowl” because it gives interested members of the public a close-up view of what it’s like to assemble data from space probes and how the process contributes to the space sciences.
Besides its primary purpose of engaging the public, JunoCam can provide context for scientific instruments on Juno. Some of these instruments study features in the turbulent atmosphere such as the Little Red Spot, an anticyclonic feature that scientists have been watching for the past 23 years. This feature tends to show a darker red when it’s stronger, as it was in 2006. Now that it’s weaker, the Little Red Spot very nearly blends in with its surroundings and can be difficult to spot without the kind of detail that JunoCam is capable of.
The public can participate in JunoCam’s operations by visiting JunoCam’s official community website. This community selects targets for JunoCam through direct voting, processes images, discusses interesting features in Jupiter’s atmosphere, and assists with planning by contributing their original astrophotography images and observations of Jupiter.