NASA has released the closest picture yet taken of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. The Juno space probe approached within 5,600 miles above the clouds of the solar system’s largest planet on July 10. The images were transmitted to Earth the following day along with data gathered from the Red Spot by Juno’s suite of sensors. Scientists are currently analyzing the data and should be able to garner insights about the iconic region.

What is the Great Red Spot?

As far as can be determined, the Great Red Spot is a gigantic storm in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter measuring 10,000 miles in diameter, more than that of Earth.

As far as scientists can determine the upper cloud deck of Jupiter consists of ammonia, ammonium hydrosulfide, and water. No one is sure what gives the spot the iconic red color, but scientists theorize that cosmic rays may be interacting with the gas in the spot, changing its color. Jupiter itself is primarily hydrogen and helium and is considered a failed star which failed to ignite.

The Great Red Spot has been observed at least since 1830 and perhaps as far back as when Galileo first trained his telescope on the gas giant. The spot has been observed to be shrinking in recent decades.

Juno’s mission

Juno launched from Earth August 2011 and entered orbit around Jupiter in July 2016, The space probe is currently in a wide, elliptical orbit around the gas giant, dipping as close as 2,200 miles above the upper clouds within a zone of intense radiation before moving outwards again.

Juno is designed to examine Jupiter’s atmosphere, weather, gravitational field, magnetic field, and the mass of its core. When the space probe has made its 37th orbit, NASA plans to crash it into Jupiter’s atmosphere to destroy it rather the risk having it collide with one of Jupiter’s moons and contaminating it. By this time Juno will likely be too damaged to go on due to periodic exposure to the intense radiation surrounding Jupiter.

The exploration of Jupiter

The United States has sent numerous probes to Jupiter, including the Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 flyby missions and the Galileo orbiter. The basis for the probes was to study, not only Jupiter but, various of its moons such as Europa and Ganymede. Ulysses, Cassini, and New Horizons have each passed close to Jupiter during gravity assist maneuvers.

Future missions include the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) and the NASA Europa Clipper. JUICE may include a Ganymede lander provided by Russia and Europa Clipper may include a landing element for the icy moon.