Surreal Pictures Show Jupiter Is Even Weirder Than We Thought

Early scientific findings from the Juno spacecraft show a world of intricate clouds, intense magnetism, and a potentially eroding core.

The solar system’s biggest planet just keeps getting more spectacular—and more confoundingly mysterious.

While we’ve known for centuries that Jupiter is snazzily decorated with colourful, cloudy bands and stormy splotches, the images coming back from NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting Jupiter since last July, reveal filigreed clouds unlike anything else in the solar system.

A montage of 10 images shows Jupiter growing and shrinking in apparent size before and after NASA's Juno spacecraft made its closest approach on August 27, 2016.

Team members from NASA’s Juno mission invited the public to process raw Juno images and post their results, like this one submitted by user Eric Jorgensen.

Taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, this image highlights a swirling storm just south of one of the white oval cyclones on Jupiter.

This view of Jupiter, taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, highlights one of its swirling storm systems.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft skimmed the upper wisps of Jupiter’s atmosphere when it this image on February 2, 2017, from about 9,000 miles above the giant planet’s swirling cloud tops.

This enhanced-color image of a mysterious dark spot on Jupiter seems to reveal a Jovian “galaxy” of swirling storms.

The sunlit part of Jupiter and its swirling atmosphere shine in this Juno image processed by citizen scientist Alex Mai. Juno's raw images are available online for the public to peruse and process.

Now, early science results from the Juno mission, reported in 46 papers published today in Science and Geophysical Research Letters, are also painting a picture of a planet that doesn’t work the way scientists thought it would, from the tops of its clouds to a potentially oversized, eroding core.

NASA SPACECRAFT IS ABOUT TO ENTER JUPITER’S ORBIT NASA's Juno spacecraft got us closer to the giant planet than ever before when it entered Jupiter's orbit on July 4, 2016.

“I think everyone expected we would learn a lot, but I don’t think any of the science team expected that every aspect of Jupiter would hold these profound surprises,” says Scott Bolton, principal investigator for the Juno mission.

Gathered during Juno’s August 27 science orbit, the early results include the revelation that Jupiter’s magnetic field is nearly twice as strong as expected, and that enormous cyclones erupt and swirl near the planet’s poles.

Still, more data suggest that the planet’s core may be larger and more dilute than anticipated, with heavy metals and rock slowly dissolving in a layer of liquid metallic hydrogen.

Juno also caught a glimpse of the powerful auroras that glow near the poles, which are curiously devoid of cloudy bands and are instead roiling, pastel-colored messes of storms and spirals that look very different from each other.

And when it peered into Jupiter’s atmosphere, the spacecraft detected ammonia welling up from deep within the planet’s gassy shroud. The pungent, suffocating plume of gas could be creating vast weather systems that transform the planet’s clouds into the artistry that we can see.

“I love the way Jupiter's poles look in our images—so beautiful and so very different from Saturn,” says Candy Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute. “We are so used to seeing Jupiter's belts and zones. Not seeing that structure at all at the poles really threw me at first.”

Stormier and more colourful than neighbouring Saturn, Jupiter is also so much bigger that it’s possible it’s being shaped by processes that are more star-like than planet-like, Bolton says.

As Juno loops around Jupiter several dozen more times, it will continue answering questions that couldn’t even be predicted. And perhaps, by the end of the mission, the spacecraft will finally help scientists solve the mystery of what really lies beneath those twisting clouds.

Header Image: This enhanced colour view of Jupiter’s south pole was created by citizen scientist Gabriel Fiset using data from NASA’s Juno spacecraft. PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA

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