James Webb Telescope releases spectacular images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and ghostly glowing auroras
Infrared images show details of the giant planet’s surface in unprecedented detail.
Here’s Jupiter as you’ve never seen it before: images taken by NASA and ESA’s James Webb Telescope show the giant planet’s many surface features in unprecedented detail.
The images were taken using the telescope’s NIRCam infrared instrument on 27 July 2022. NIRCam uses three specially designed filters to reveal details of the planet at wavelengths invisible to the human eye, which can then be combined to produce incredibly detailed composite images. In general, longer wavelengths are shown in red and shorter wavelengths are shown in blue.
“We hadn’t really expected it to be this good, to be honest,” said planetary astronomer Prof Imke de Pater, of the University of California, Berkeley who led the observations.
“It’s really remarkable that we can see details on Jupiter together with its rings, tiny satellites, and even galaxies in one image.”
The images clearly show Jupiter’s iconic Great Red Spot – a giant, whirling storm found in the planet’s atmosphere. Previous data recorded by NASA’s Juno spacecraft has shown the storm to be around 1.3 times the diameter of Earth and made up of clouds that whirl anticlockwise at speeds of up to 680km/h. The spot penetrates at least 320km into Jupiter’s atmosphere and has been fascinating stargazers across the globe for hundreds of years.
“The brightness here indicates high altitude – so the Great Red Spot has high-altitude hazes, as does the equatorial region,” said Dr Heidi Hammel, Webb interdisciplinary scientist for solar system observations.
“The numerous bright white ‘spots’ and ‘streaks’ are likely very high-altitude cloud tops of condensed convective storms.”
Also clearly visible are the glowing auroras that cup the planet’s north and south poles. Much like the auroras here on Earth, the Northern and Southern Lights, these are created when high-energy particles ejected by the Sun enter a planet’s atmosphere near its magnetic poles and collide with atoms of gas.
The auroras seen on Jupiter are hundreds of times more energetic than those on Earth and, unlike those on our home planet, are always present.
Continuing observations by the James Webb Telescope will help researchers to further study the chemistry and dynamics of Jupiter’s atmosphere.
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Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.
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