Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet, is turning out to be as majestic as its ancient name implies. High definition images taken of its poles, transmitted back to Earth by the space probe Juno, show a vibrant, churning cloudscape which appear to have been artistically generated in oils (1). The gnarly appearance of the storms and tempests which are woven into this mind-blowingly immense vista seem peaceful enough from space, but the ferocity of their winds can only be imagined. Although the colours have been enhanced to a certain extent artificially (2), Juno’s imaging equipment has captured the incredibly beautiful blue colours of the polar zones and the immense set of storms swirling within.
(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran)
These dramatic regions contrast strongly with the generally dull series of beige bands wrapping around the more familiar equatorial region (although Juno has also allowed us to better appreciate the intricate patterns of these banded zones, too) . These blues are more reminiscent of the ice giants Neptune and Uranus, and perhaps even of Earth – although the constituent gases of the atmospheres of these worlds can differ significantly from Jupiter’s. which give the clouds. The different colours and properties of Jupiter’s clouds can be attributed to their constituent gases – mostly hydrogen and helium, but also water, ammonia, methane and sulphur.
It seems to me that the solar system is starting to come to life – not in the way of biological life, although that may yet come to be, but instead in terms of our appreciation of its rich complexity and visuality. The Pioneer and Voyager space probes provided what were incredible images of the outer solar system planets back in their day. But limitations in the image-capturing technology also created a sense in those images of dull uniformity.
In the decades before the space-probe images had been sent back from the outer solar system, sci-fi writers, film-makers and scientists had created an amazing array of ideas about what these worlds might be like. This potential had become ingrained within the public collective consciousness, and to some extent helped drive NASA’s ambitious space programme forward. This was enhanced by a sense of mystery – and a hope of alien life. However, the images returning to our television screens in the latter part of the 20th century clearly did not do these worlds justice. So, although obtaining the planetary images were astonishing achievements in themselves, the disappointing lack of features within them dashed many hopes, and provided the public with a new view of the outer solar system. Like lifeless Mars and overheated Venus, the outer solar system consisted of a rather mundane set of giant planets distinctly lacking in the vibrant complexity of our own Earth. Read More…