For the last year and a half, the NASA spacecraft Juno has been circling Jupiter and collecting reams of data. Juno spends most of its time a good distance away from Jupiter, safe from the worst of the planet’s intense radiation belts. But once every orbit, the spacecraft comes swooping toward Jupiter and directs its instruments—protected by 400 pounds of titanium—toward the perpetually stormy clouds that cover its surface. Then it zooms back out.
One of those instruments, a camera called JunoCam, has produced dozens of mesmerizing photographs of Jupiter in extraordinary detail. The planet’s clouds, with their intricate eddies and swirls, look like something out of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Juno’s other instruments are designed to look deeper, beyond the beauty on the surface and into the darkness below. And the more they look, the more scientists learn that Jupiter is weirder than anyone thought.
“We’ve seen that a lot of our expectations were wrong,” says Scott Bolton, the principal investigator of the Juno mission and the director of space science and engineering at the Southwest Research Institute.
The Juno team’s first report of scientific results, released last May, shattered a number of predictions. The robust magnetic field that surrounds Jupiter, for example, is about twice as strong as models had predicted. Scientists had expected Jupiter to have either a dense core of heavy elements or no core at all, but Juno showed it’s probably something in the middle—a “fuzzy,” partially dissolved core—and much bigger than they anticipated.