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We all recognise Jupiter by its banded pattern of counter-rotating zones and belts – this can be seen even with small garden telescopes. These stunning structures are powered by fast jet streams that are visible in the planet's clouds. But what happens near its poles and below its cloud tops has long been a bit of a mystery.
Thanks to its unique orbit, NASA's Juno mission has now revealed some of Jupiter's best-kept secrets. The results, published in four papers in Nature, show that the planet has surprising "polygonal" shapes of cyclones at its poles – including a pentagon at the south pole – and that its banded structure persists to depths of 3,000km.
Earth - Spacecraft - Orbits - Jupiter - Regions
From Earth and spacecraft in certain orbits, we can only see Jupiter's equatorial regions well. In fact, this has been the case for all previous missions to the planet. Images from Voyager, Cassini and the Galileo orbiter provided magnificent views of the zone-belt structure and long-lived storms such as the Great Red Spot. The Galileo probe sampled only down to 160km below the clouds in one location.
Juno has a unique, highly elliptical orbit, giving it the first good views over Jupiter's poles. Every 53 days since July 2016, it has swept as close as 4,100km above Jupiter's cloud tops, giving it excellent views of its aurora – a type of "northern lights" caused by electrical currents in the rapidly rotating magnetosphere (a magnetic field) interacting with the planet's atmosphere – and the polar regions of the atmosphere in visible, infrared and ultraviolet light.
Aurora - Juno - Scientists - Field - Jupiter
As well as studying the aurora and magnetosphere, Juno also helps scientists probe the gravitational field of Jupiter's interior in exquisite detail by monitoring small tweaks to the spacecraft's orbit – down to 3,000km below the clouds.
Being the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter boasts...
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