Astronomers create an unprecedented portrait of Jupiter in infrared

May 11, 2020, 3:41 p.m.
An infrared portrait of Jupiter.
Photo: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley) and team Acknowledgments: Mahdi Zamani

Ever since we first spied Jupiter in the night sky some 400 years ago, we haven't been able to take our eyes off it. And it's not only because the gas giant happens to be the biggest planet in our solar system. Jupiter is also the biggest personality in our galactic neighborhood.

Its atmosphere is roiling with superstorms, many of them having raged for hundreds of years. And those storms feature 40-mile high thunderheads that spit lightning bolts at least three times as powerful as anything we've known on Earth.

And then there's that Great Red Spot, a megastorm that's twice as wide as our entire planet. Now, thanks to a collaboration between the Hubble Space Telescope, the Gemini Observatory, and the Juno spacecraft, we can peer beneath that to see how deep Jupiter's flair for drama really runs.

"We want to know how Jupiter's atmosphere works," Michael Wong, an astronomer at University of California, Berkeley who worked on the project, says in a press release.

To do that, researchers stitched together multi-wavelength observations from Hubble and Gemini with close-up views from Juno's orbit. Their findings, published this week in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series, explores the origins of lightning outbursts and cyclonic vortices.

Along the way, the overlapping observations from Gemini, Hubble, and Juno paint the entire planet in infrared, giving us the most detailed portrait yet of this ultimate drama queen — and specifically, the megastorm that is the Great Red Spot.

It turns out that the smoldering spot is riddled with holes. The infrared map, researchers note, reveals the dark patches in the Red Spot aren't different types of clouds, but rather gaps in cloud cover.

"It's kind of like a jack-o'-lantern," Wong notes in the release. "You see bright infrared light coming from cloud-free areas, but where there are clouds, it's really dark in the infrared."

With the help of the Hubble and Gemini telescopes, as well as the Juno spacecraft, scientists say they can now plumb the depths of Jupiter's angry atmosphere — and how it formed.

"Because we now routinely have these high-resolution views from a couple of different observatories and wavelengths, we are learning so much more about Jupiter's weather," NASA planetary scientist Amy Simon explains in the release. "This is our equivalent of a weather satellite. We can finally start looking at weather cycles."