NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Discovers Curiosities at Jupiter’s Poles

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Don’t be fooled by that model solar system you had as a kid. Until a few days ago, scientists had no flipping idea what Jupiter’s poles looked like. But now, thanks to NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which dropped into orbit around the distant gas giant on July 4th after a five-year solar-powered journey, scientists are seeing (two) sides of Jupiter they’ve never seen before. Turns out the view is pretty good: Jupiter’s poles are gorgeous, cloudy, surprisingly blue, and chock full of science.

Most planets in the solar system have axes that are slightly tilted in relation to their orbital plane, so if you wait long enough, you can snap a picture of them from just about every angle. Earth is tipped over 23.5 degrees. Saturn’s axial tilt is about 26.7 degrees. Jupiter, on the other hand, is tilted just 3 degrees–basically straight up and down. That makes its poles darn near impossible to see without a direct flyover, and previous missions to Jupiter have tended to fly in equatorial orbits.

Which is why the Juno leads decided it was it was worth the risk to attempt the very low, unconventional orbit required to get these photos–though it still had them pretty worried. “You’re always kind of nervous until you actually have data in your hands,” says Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, senior scientist at the Planetary Scientist Institute and JunoCam lead. “The orbit itself is like nothing we’ve ever tried before. We went from the north pole to the south pole, practically skimming the cloud tops.” Hansen-Koharcheck was happy just to see the spacecraft make it through Jupiter’s powerful radiation belt, let alone make it through its first of 36 close flybys unscathed.

The Juno’s onboard photographer, Junocam, snapped 28 photos on August 27th when the spacecraft was soaring just 2,500 miles over Jupiter’s roiling storm clouds, the first of which you can see in the gallery below. A couple things jump out right away. For one, neither pole has Jupiter’s famous orangey stripes. Oh, and they’re blue–though Hansen-Koharcheck cautions these new images are enhanced, and scientists won’t know how blue the poles really are until they run further analyses of the raw images. “We’ll get to that once we stop drooling,” Hansen-Koharcheck says.