Not surprisingly, there is a lot going on on the surface of Jupiter. According to NASA, if Earth were the size of a grape, mighty Jupiter would be the size of a basketball. NASA now has “huge news from a huge planet.” The James Webb Space Telescope has sent stunning new images of the fifth planet from our sun, giving scientists a better look at the inner workings of the gas planet.
“We really didn’t expect it to be this good, to be honest,” planetary astronomer Imke de Pater, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. “It’s really remarkable that we can see details of Jupiter along with its rings, small moons and even galaxies in one image,” she said. DePater led the observations with Thierry Fouche of the Paris Observatory as part of an international collaboration for the Webb Early Release Science program. The Webb mission itself is an international space mission led by NASA with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).
The two images were taken on July 27 and are a composite of several images taken by Webb’s Near Infrared Camera. This camera has special infrared filters that can show the details of the planet unlike any before it. Infrared light is invisible to the human eye, so the images were tinted to translate them into the visible spectrum and make Jupiter’s features stand out, according to NASA.
[Related: Jupiter’s largest moon wrestles for attention with its Big Red Spot.]
A wide-field view of the new images shows Jupiter’s faint rings and two small moons called Amalthea and Adrasthea. “This single image summarizes the science of our Jupiter System Program, which studies the dynamics and chemistry of Jupiter itself, its rings and its satellite system,” said Fouche.
The stand-alone view of Jupiter was also created from a combination of several Webb images. In it, the auroras are present both at high altitudes above Jupiter’s north and south poles, just as they are on Earth. A red filter highlights the auroras, yellow and green highlight the various nebulae that swirl around the planet’s north and south poles, and blue filters show the light reflected from a deeper underlying cloud.
The images also show one of Jupiter’s defining features: the Great Red Spot. It appears white in these photos because it reflects sunlight, according to NASA. The Great Red Spot is a giant storm larger than our entire planet and has been raging for centuries.
“The brightness here indicates high altitude—so the Great Red Spot has high-altitude haze, as does the equatorial region,” Heidi Hamel, Webb’s interdisciplinary scientist for solar system observations and vice president of science at AURA, noted in a statement. “The numerous bright white ‘spots’ and ‘streaks’ are likely very high altitude cloud tops from condensed convective storms.” By comparison, the dark bands north of Jupiter’s equatorial region have little cloud cover.
[Related: Jupiter formed dinky little rings, and there’s a convincing explanation why.]
NASA acknowledges the citizen science community for their role in helping astronomers process these images. Judy Schmidt of Modesto, California, processed these new views of Jupiter. A longtime image processor in the citizen science community, she collaborated with Ricardo Hueso, a co-investigator of these observations who studies planetary atmospheres at the University of the Basque Country in Spain.
Although he has no formal background in astronomy, Schmidt’s passion for astronomical image processing was sparked by ESA’s “Hubble’s Hidden Treasure” contest in 2012. The contest calls on the public to discover new gems buried in decades of Hubble data. Schmidt took third place out of nearly 3,000 submissions for his portrayal of a newborn star.
She continued to work with Hubble and other telescope data as a hobby. “Something about it just stayed with me and I can’t stop,” she said in a statement to NASA. “I could spend hours and hours every day.”