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New images make Jupiter a huge jack-o'-lantern, reveal secrets about Great Red Spot - USA TODAY

Doyle Rice USA TODAY

Published 3:03 PM EDT May 11, 2020

We're learning more about the gigantic storms and turbulent atmosphere of the solar system's largest planet, Jupiter. 

A trio of NASA instruments – the Hubble Space Telescope, the ground-based Gemini Observatory in Hawaii and the Juno spacecraft that's orbiting Jupiter – have teamed up to probe the mightiest storms in the solar system, taking place more than 500 million miles away on the giant planet.

"We want to know how Jupiter's atmosphere works," said Michael Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California-Berkeley. "This is where the teamwork of Juno, Hubble and Gemini comes into play."

One recently released image from NASA shows Jupiter as a giant "jack-o'-lantern," where the warm, deep layers of Jupiter's atmosphere glow through gaps in the planet's thick cloud cover.

"It's kind of like a jack-o'-lantern," Wong said. "You see bright infrared light coming from cloud-free areas, but where there are clouds, it's really dark in the infrared."

That image was taken by the Gemini Observatory and is among the highest-resolution images of Jupiter ever obtained from the ground.

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Wong said Gemini is the most effective way for scientists to get detailed images of Jupiter in the infrared wavelength. Gemini achieved a 300-mile resolution on Jupiter, which is impressive considering Jupiter is 500 million miles away.

 "At this resolution, the telescope could resolve the two headlights of a car in Miami, seen from New York City," said Andrew Stephens, the Gemini astronomer who led the observations. 

The new observations also confirm that dark spots in the planet's famous Great Red Spot are actually gaps in the cloud cover and not because of cloud color variations.

In addition, the Juno spacecraft detected hundreds of lightning strikes around Jupiter's poles, which NASA said is the opposite of Earth, where lightning is most common around the equator.  

Jupiter's constant storms are gigantic compared to those on Earth. Thunderhead clouds reach 40 miles from base to top – five times taller than typical thunderheads on Earth – and powerful lightning flashes up to three times more energetic than Earth's largest "superbolts," NASA said.

The results about Jupiter were published in April 2020 in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.


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