Jupiter's north pole is totally weird

Juno's first flyby of Jupiter has sent back the first high-resolution photographs of the planet's north pole -- revealing exciting new information.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
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This image was taken about two hours prior to Juno's closest approach to Jupiter.


Jupiter's south pole was well documented by Cassini on its way to Saturn, but the north pole (home of Jovian Santa, one could only assume) has remained much more mysterious. This is set to change with the arrival of Jupiter probe Juno, which completed its first flyby of the north pole on August 27 and has already started delivering.

On that flyby, Juno got busy taking photos with its JunoCam instrument from a distance of just 4,200 kilometres (2,500 miles) above Jupiter's clouds as it travelled over a period of six hours from the north pole to the south. The resulting 6 MB of data took NASA a day and a half to download.

It will take even longer to fully analyse the data, but the photos have already revealed that there's nothing else like Jupiter's north pole in the solar system.

"First glimpse of Jupiter's north pole, and it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before," said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton in a statement. "Saturn has a hexagon at the north pole. There is nothing on Jupiter that anywhere near resembles that. The largest planet in our solar system is truly unique. We have 36 more flybys to study just how unique it really is."

The north pole of Jupiter looks almost nothing like the south pole. It's more blue in colour, and tempestuous. Shadows, Bolton said, also suggest that the clouds are much higher in altitude than other features.

"This image is hardly recognisable as Jupiter," he said.

Meanwhile, Juno's other eight instruments were also hard at work. The Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper captured some stunning images of Jupiter's southern polar aurora, allowing researchers to see the phenomenon for the first time. And the Radio/Plasma Wave Experiment captured auroral emissions and translated them into spooky sounds.

The Juno mission is scheduled to complete another 35 such flybys before it's done. Or in other words: We ain't seen nothin' yet.