Jupiter, a massive ball of gas that makes up the better portion of planetary matter in our solar system, has long played a role in mankind’s understanding of the universe beyond our pale, blue dot.  In 1676, Danish astronomer Ole Rømer’s study of the orbit of Jupiter’s moon Io led him to the outrageous (at the time) theory that light travels at a fixed rate of speed.  Using his calculations, he was able to extrapolate a “speed of light” that was actually fairly close to what scientists would come to use in nearly all astrophysics computations.

The discovery of the great “red spot” on Jupiter was credited to Samuel Heinrich Schwabe, all the way back in 1831.  The spot, we’d come to find, was a massive storm – so large, in fact, that the entire planet earth could fit inside it.

In the 19th century, the storm is believed to have been about 30,000 miles in diameter, though it has been shrinking at a rate of about 580 miles per year since then.  There’s a chance, because of this rate of degradation, that the spot will eventually vanish altogether, though no one currently knows for sure.  NASA scientists currently speculate the massive storm to be about 350 years old.

NASA’s team of scientists, researchers, and astronomers today retain that fascination with the giant in our sky, and earlier this week, their spacecraft, Juno, sent back clearer and more detailed images of the planet, and its great red spot, than human eyes have ever seen before.

For generations people from all over the world and all walks of life have marveled over the Great Red Spot,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now we are finally going to see what this storm looks like up close and personal.”

Today, the famed red spot is only about 10,000 miles wide, which still makes it about 1.3 times the size of Earth.  Juno, which launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida celebrated its one-year anniversary orbiting the gas giant on July 4th, just six days before conducting its flyby of the red spot.

The pictures released by NASA follow Juno’s trip to within a mere 5,600 miles of the storm.  For perspective, many of the images we’ve seen taken by earth based telescopes were shot from over 365 million miles away.

This monumental storm has raged on the solar system’s biggest planet for centuries. Now, Juno and her cloud-penetrating science instruments will dive in to see how deep the roots of this storm go, and help us understand how this giant storm works and what makes it so special,” Bolton said in a NASA news release.

NASA’s team of 32 co-investigators and 28 key personnel are already analyzing the images and data collected by Juno’s flyby, with another such close-up view slated to come as soon as September 1st of this year.  It has already flown an estimated 71 million miles above the planet’s surface, and has traveled further from earth than any solar powered spacecraft has before it.


Images courtesy of NASA JPL