Here's the Closest View of Jupiter's Great Red Spot That Humans Have Ever Seen

NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran © PUBLIC DOMAIN
NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran © PUBLIC DOMAIN

NASA's Juno spacecraft completed perijove 7 yesterday, flying nearest to Jupiter in its 53-day orbit and collecting intimate science a mere 5600 miles above the gas giant's cloud tops. This flyby took the spacecraft directly over Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a centuries-old, 10,000-mile-wide vermilion vortex that has long perplexed scientists. Among the storm's unknowns are its depth and perpetuating forces. The first raw images of the Earth-sized hurricane were released today.

"This is a storm that we've been tracking ever since the dawn of modern astronomy, and we're the first generation to get this exquisite level of detail," Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester, tells Mental Floss. He says that from the spacecraft's perspective, the Great Red Spot would have stretched from horizon to horizon.

Juno has thus far given us a startling new vision of Jupiter—one of teeming teals and swirling storms—and caused scientists to sharpen their pencils and rewrite much of what they knew about the solar system's largest planet. Today's initial image data promise no less a revolution in the scientific understanding of Jupiter.

What does the Great Red Spot look like from an expert's perspective? "I see a swirl of red cloud material as the vortex spirals anti-clockwise, a deep-red heart that coincides with the calm center of the powerful winds, and clusters of small-scale clouds that stand above the red depths," says Fletcher. "There's even evidence of waves in the spiral arms in these breathtaking images. It's an incredible level of detail in an image that's set to become instantly iconic."

sequential views of the great red spot of jupiter
Enhanced, filtered, and color-adjusted images of the Great Red Spot, in sequential order, showing the changing view from the spacecraft as it passed over the 10,000-mile-wide storm.
Ted Stryk © PUBLIC DOMAIN

Today's image release is just a taste of what is to come, of course. The spacecraft had all nine of its science instruments active during the pass, and data are being blasted back to the Deep Space Network at the speed of light. "For me, the real science always starts with spectroscopy," says Fletcher, "assessing the fingerprints of the gaseous composition and aerosols that are present within the storm." Juno's science payload allows scientists to peer hundreds of miles beneath Jupiter's clouds. "For years we've tried to understand how deep [the Great Red Spot] penetrates into the atmosphere, and what might be sustaining it. By probing below the clouds with the microwave instrument, we might just find the answers we've been looking for."

The Juno spacecraft launched on August 5, 2011 and achieved orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. The next flyby of Jupiter will take place on September 1. It will mark the spacecraft's eighth orbit and seventh science flyby.

Want to see more amazing images? Head over to NASA's JunoCam.

Stardust Created 7 Billion Years Ago Is the Oldest Stuff on Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Between 5 and 7 billion years ago, a dying star shot an explosion of particles through space. Some of that stardust ended up in a meteorite that landed in Murchison, Australia, in 1969. And according to new research, it's officially the oldest known solid material on Earth.

For the new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 30 years after the research began, scientists pulverized fragments of the meteorite to determine its age. The resulting paste-like substance reportedly smelled like "rotten peanut butter." The strange aroma "comes from byproducts of the breakdown of the abiotic organic molecules—molecules that didn't form from life—in the Murchison meteorite," lead author Philipp R. Heck, a curator at Chicago's Field Museum, tells Mental Floss.

Heck used acid to further break down the rock and isolate the grains of stardust, which are smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. To date the particles, the team measured neon isotopes that formed when cosmic rays hit the solid matter making up the stardust. The older the stardust is, the more cosmic rays it has been exposed to, so the amount of neon isotopes it contains can be used to estimate its age. Heck compares the method to collecting water in a bucket to determine how long it's been raining.

The team found that the meteorite contained particles older than 5.5 billion years and possibly as old as 7 billion years. The Earth has only been around for 4.5 billion years, and the sun for 4.6 billion. The formation of this super-old stardust is believed to have occurred during an "astral baby boom," according to a statement released by the Field Museum, in which an uptick in stellar activity literally created the matter that shapes the world we know today.

When the grains formed, "most stars that we see tonight in the sky didn’t exist," Heck says. "The bright stars that would have been shining through our galaxy were the previous generation of stars, our parent stars. [They] formed the elements that later became fuel and ingredients for the solar system, Earth, and us. These stars formed the material that we are made out of."

While the grains in the Murchison meteorite are the oldest solid material on the planet, many of the gases on Earth are much older. Some of the hydrogen in your body, for example, may have originated with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

17-Year-Old NASA Intern Helped Discover Twin-Starred 'Tatooine' Planet

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

On January 6, NASA announced that it had detected an Earth-sized planet, TOI 700 d, 100 light-years away from Earth that could be capable of hosting life. The same mission also led to the discovery of a rare planet with twin suns courtesy of a 17-year-old intern.

As CNN reports, high school student Wolf Cukier was combing through data collected by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, when he noticed something strange about one binary star system. The system TOI 1338 consists of two stars that orbit each other once every 15 days. When the smaller of the two stars passes across the larger one, it's known as a stellar eclipse. But one signal that had been flagged as a stellar eclipse wasn't an eclipse at all; just three days into his internship at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Cukier had found a planet orbiting the two stars.

The planet, since dubbed TOI 1338 b, is like a real-life version of Luke Skywalker's home planet Tatooine from the Star Wars movies. It's located roughly 1300 light-years away in the Pictor constellation and is somewhere between Neptune and Saturn in size. Twin-starred planets are rare, and this marks this first one detected through NASA's planet-hunting TESS mission.

TESS launched in 2018 with the goal of finding new planets outside our own solar system. Planets are typically discovered by recording stars over time and looking for dips in their brightness that indicate passing planets. This system becomes complicated when dealing with binary star systems, as dips in light caused by a planet in transit can get confused with an eclipsing star and vice versa. Without Cukier's keen eye, this latest discovery may have gone undetected.

It may have the same number of stars as Tatooine, but the similarities TOI 1338 b shares with the planet from Star Wars end there. So far, TOI 700 d is the only planet discovered by TESS that has a chance of being habitable.

[h/t CNN]

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