A lucky dip into Jupiter’s clouds captures stunning image of the planet

Astronomers have captured some of the highest ever resolution infrared images of Jupiter taken from the Earth, using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii.

“The Gemini data were critical because they allowed us to probe deeply into Jupiter’s clouds on a regular schedule,” explained Michael Wong of University of California Berkeley, leader of the research team, in a statement. “We used a very powerful technique called lucky imaging.”

Lucky imaging works by capturing a large number of very short exposure images from an Earth-based telescope. Most of these images will be blurry due to the movements in Earth’s atmosphere. But the occasional “lucky” image will be taken at a moment when the atmosphere is still, and will capture its target in sharp detail. The lucky images can then be combined into one mosaic. This technique allowed the researchers to capture the sharpest infrared image of Jupiter yet seen.

image showing the entire disk of Jupiter in infrared light
This image showing the entire disk of Jupiter in infrared light was compiled from a mosaic of nine separate pointings observed by the international Gemini Observatory. International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley) and team Acknowledgments: Mahdi Zamani

By looking in the infrared wavelength instead of the visible light wavelength, the astronomers were able to look through the thin haze in Jupiter’s atmosphere which infrared wavelengths can pass through. But the thicker clouds in the upper atmosphere block the infrared wanes, leading to this effect where the deeper, warmer layers of atmosphere glow through gaps in the cloud cover.

One interesting finding from this study is the peculiar glow seen in the Great Red Spot, a storm that has been raging for hundreds of years and is so large it is visible from space. The glow indicates that some of the upper clouds are parting to offer a view of the deeper layers.

“Similar features have been seen in the Great Red Spot before,” team member Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab explained, “but visible-light observation couldn’t distinguish between darker cloud material, and thinner cloud cover over Jupiter’s warm interior, so their nature remained a mystery.”

This new data suggests that the glow of this section in the infrared wavelength indicates a gap in the clouds which is allowing Jupiter’s internal heat to shine through and to be detectable from outside of the planet’s atmosphere.

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

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