Jupiter dazzles in James Webb Space Telescope images

It’s not surprising that Jupiter has so much going on at its surface. According to NASA, if Earth were the size of a grape, mighty Jupiter would be the size of a basketball. Now, NASA has “Huge news from a huge planet.” The James Webb Space Telescope has sent back stunning new images of the fifth planet from our Sun, giving scientists a better insight into 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 emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. “It’s really remarkable that we can see Jupiter’s rings, small satellites, and even galaxies in one image,” she said. DePater led the observations with Thierry Fauchet of the Paris Observatory as part of the international collaboration for Webb’s Early Release Science program. The Web 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 from several images taken by Webb’s near-infrared camera. This camera has special infrared filters that can show the details of the planet like never before. Infrared light is invisible to the human eye, so the images were colorized 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, Amalthea and Adraste. “This one image summarizes the science of our Jupiter System Program, which studies the dynamics and chemistry of Jupiter, its rings and its satellite system,” Fauchet said.

A standalone view of Jupiter was also created by combining several images from the web. In this, the auroras are located at high altitudes above both Jupiter’s north and south poles, just as they are on Earth. Red filters highlight the aurora, yellow and green various hazes swirling around the planet’s north and south poles, and blue filters show light reflected from deep main clouds.

Jupiter in enhanced color, the Great Red Spot is shown in brilliant white. NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS team; Image processing by Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU) and Judy Schmidt. NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS team; Image processing by Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU) and Judy Schmidt.

The images also show one of Jupiter’s defining features: the Great Red Spot. White appears in these images because it is reflecting 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 a high altitude — so the Great Red Spot has high-altitude haze, similar to the equatorial region,” Heidi Hammel, Webb Interdisciplinary Scientist for Solar System Observing and vice president of science at AURA, noted in a statement. “Very bright white ‘spots’ and ‘streaks’ may be very high-altitude cloud tops of compressed convective storms.” By comparison, there is little cloud in the dark ribbon north of Jupiter’s equatorial region.

[Related: Jupiter formed dinky little rings, and there’s a convincing explanation why.]

NASA credits the citizen science community for its role in helping astronomers process these images. Judy Schmidt of Modesto, California processed these new ideas of Jupiter. A longtime image processor in the citizen science community, he collaborated on these observations with co-investigator Ricardo Hueso, who studies planetary atmospheres at the University of the Basque Country in Spain.

Despite having no formal background in astronomy, Schmidt’s passion for astronomical image processing was sparked by ESA’s Hubble’s Hidden Treasure competition in 2012. The contest called on the public to find new gems buried in decades of Hubble data. Schmidt took third place out of nearly 3,000 submissions for her image of the newborn star.

She continues to work with Hubble and other telescope data as a hobby. “Something about it has stuck with me, and I can’t stop,” she said in a statement to NASA. “I could spend hours and hours every day.”

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