NASA’s Juno craft all set for historic close encounter with Jupiter’s Great Red Spot today

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Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot is one of the most mysterious and least understood aspects of this solar system but a new mission from NASA’s Juno spacecraft hopes to open up understanding of this planetary heavyweight beyond anything which has been achieved before. On Tuesday, Juno will travel past the Great Red Spot and capture images of the huge hurricane which has been raging in the region for at least two hundred years.

NASA’s Juno mission will capture images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot for the first time

The mission will mark the first time that a space agency has ever managed to capture images of the largest storm in the solar system and the scientists working on the project are at the edge of their seats to find out what Juno will return to them. “Nobody knows exactly what kind of features we’ll see inside, what the kind of colours and swirling of the clouds are, “said the Juno mission’s principal investigator, Scott Bolton who is based at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas. “It’s going to be incredible, “he said, “I can’t wait to see what it looks like.”

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot has fascinated astronomers since it was first officially discovered in the early 1800s. According to even older records, dating back to the late seventeenth century, it appears that the Giant Red Spot was visible through rudimentary telescopes almost 500 years ago. Astronomers today think that their historical predecessors were probably looking at exactly the same storm as one can view today.

But despite the fact that the Great Red Spot has been under constant observation for centuries, experts are still no closer to understanding how the tremendous storm is sustaining itself. “There are some scientists who believe that in order for a storm to have lasted that long, it must have very deep roots. Maybe the source of energy that’s creating that storm comes from deep inside the planet, ” explained Dr Bolton. “Of course, up till now, we’ve only had the ability to look at the top part of Jupiter. We just see this thin veneer, which is gorgeous — it has these beautiful zones and belts, and this great storm on it, and a bunch of cyclones — but the key is what’s underneath.”

It is hoped that the flyby that is planned for this week will do just that and allow the scientists working on the mission to observe the actual conditions of the storm and try to locate the mysterious ‘deep roots’ that could be sustaining it. Dr Bolton also explains that the monitors will be searching for lightening, which has been detected on Jupiter’s surface before, which could indicate that there are water clouds in the gas giant’s atmosphere. “Lots of storms on Earth have a lot of lightning, but it usually takes water, “Dr Bolton said. “This storm may be more ammonia than water, but we don’t know.”

Any mission to traverse Jupiter is fraught with a number of highly complex technical problems. The gas giant has a magnetic field which is approximately 20,000 times stronger than that of the planet Earth’s. This powerful magnetic field has generated a number of incredibly strong radiation belts that Juno must weave between in order to get in proximity to the Great Red Spot. Juno is fitted with thick titanium walls to protect it from Jupiter’s harsh atmosphere but the scientists working on the mission are still worried that everything could go wrong. “There’s high risk in every flyby. We’re going through the gates of hell, every time, “Dr Bolton said. “And each time we go by, we’re going through a worse region. More hazard, more radiation…”We will be on the edge of our seats, just keeping our fingers crossed that everything works and we get the close-up pictures that we all want.”

For the experts working on the Juno mission, time is really of the essence when it comes to snapping close up pictures of the Great Red Spot. It is believed that the planetary oddity is beginning to become smaller and changing its shape. Therefore, it is important to capture images of it now while it is in transition in order to properly understand the nature of the spot and its incredible storm.

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