Like something out of a Vincent van Gogh painting, Jupiter's stormy atmosphere is our solar system's own stunning work of art.
The above image was captured in October 2017 by NASA's Juno spacecraft at a distance of less than 12,000 miles above the Jovian cloud tops. According to NASA scientist Jack Connerney, deputy principal investigator of the Juno mission, previous images of Jupiter have been taken at the equator where orange, red, and white hues dominate.
"But Juno, for the first time, took images of Jupiter from the poles," he told NPR in May 2017. "And when you look down from the poles ... it's an entirely different image. It's almost — well, I wouldn't say almost — it is unrecognizable as Jupiter. And what you see are these cyclones, groups of cyclones, dancing around the poles, intricate storms."
With an atmosphere that best resembles the sun, Jupiter is predominantly made up of hydrogen and helium, with trace amounts of ammonia, sulfur, methane and water vapor. Strong east-west winds in the planet's upper atmosphere travel at 400 mph, with dark belts and light zones reflecting different compositions of chemicals.
According to Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton, the white clouds shown in the image above are so high and so cool that they're likely snow clouds. As you might expect, they're a bit different from the icy storms we experience here on Earth.
"It's probably mostly ammonia ice, but there may be water ice mixed into it, so it's not exactly like the snow that we have [on Earth]," Bolton told Space.com. "And I was using my imagination when I said it was snowing there — it could be hail."
NASA was surprised to discover that the poles of Jupiter are dominated by violent cyclones measuring hundreds of miles across. The massive tempests are densely grouped and seemingly rub together across the entire polar region.
“What you see is incredibly complex features, the cyclones and anticyclones all over the poles,” Bolton told the NY Times.
Some of the massive storms churning away near Jupiter's equator, like the pearl-colored cyclone above, are roughly the same diameter as Earth.
Jupiter's famous Great Red Spot (pictured above) is a storm measuring nearly 10,000 miles across, and one of the most recognizable features in the entire solar system.
Juno has been able to get some remarkably close-up views of Jupiter's clouds. The probe was a little more than one Earth diameter away when it took the image above, for example, showing cloud tops in the gas giant's northern hemisphere.
"Jupiter completely fills the image," NASA explains, "with only a hint of the terminator (where daylight fades to night) in the upper right corner, and no visible limb (the curved edge of the planet)." For a sense of scale, one pixel in this image is roughly equivalent to 5.8 miles (9.3 km).
Juno, which has been in orbit around Jupiter since July 2016, is scheduled to continue gathering data on the planet until at least July 2018. NASA will then make a decision to either extend the spacecraft's mission or, like Cassini's tour of Saturn, send it into a death plunge toward the gas giant to avoid contaminating nearby worlds.
“We’re very excited about what we’ve seen so far, and every time we fly by the planet it’s like Christmas time,” Juno project manager Rick Nybakken told SpaceFlight Now. “The data is stunning.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in December 2017.