The first time I saw the image below I was quickly flicking through my Twitter feed without paying too much attention. I assumed it was an artists impression of some new exoplanet or some such; beautiful but not real and so I moved on. It was a few days later when I saw the image again. With a little more time to spare I decided to read about it and I was, frankly, astonished to learn that not only was this a real image of a real planet but it was a planet from our solar system.
This is a picture taken by the JunoCam of Jupiter’s south pole! It is completely unrecognisable as our solar system’s biggest piece of real estate as the picture is taken from an angle we are unused to. We have only ever received images taken from an earthly, side-on, equatorial plane; but this perspective is from about 100,000 km above the Jovian south pole.
Towards the edge of the planet you can start to make out the bands of clouds that make up the profile we are more familiar with. Down from this perspective things are a bit more muddled. Each of those swirly circles is a storm, fairly small by Jupiter’s standards but huge compared to earth.
Though there is science to be gleaned from the images sent back by JunoCam that isn’t its primary function. The camera itself was only installed to fuel public engagement. We’re a fickle bunch and whilst astronomy nerds would be excited to learn of the magnetosphere and interior of Jupiter (the primary mission of Juno), to really get more of the public engaged we need pretty pictures. JunoCam is more than fulfilling its remit. The new perspectives we have gained of our systems largest planet have been breathtaking.