NASA Spacecraft Images Watercolor Vortices Near Jupiter's North Pole

They look like Monet's water lily pools, but depict a frightening world of storms.

Monisha Ravisetti Former Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments. Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Monisha Ravisetti
2 min read
NASA's image of vortex-like swirls that represent giant storms on Jupiter.

JunoCam's recent image of the incredibly huge storms decorating Jupiter's north pole region.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Brian Swift

Our solar system's citrus-colored gas giant, Jupiter, is no stranger to chaos. And earlier this month, NASA's Juno mission captured a mesmerizing snap to prove that point.

During the probe's 43rd close flyby of the enormous planet, its JunoCam instrument caught sight of watercolor vortices near the north pole. These hypnotic views are deceptively stunning -- they are of hurricane wind patterns that can reach over 30 miles (48 kilometers) in height and spread across hundreds of miles of gaseous plains. 

Though the picture we see of the frightening spectacle is decked out in lovely ceruleans, iridescent opals and strong teals, it's important to realize that it's digitally processed to hold such vivid blue-ish hues. After collecting raw JunoCam data -- specifically an image taken by the space explorer at about 15,600 miles (25,100 kilometers) above Jupiter's cloud tops -- citizen scientist Brian Swift enhanced these Jovian storms for analytic purposes.

A marble-hued Jupiter against the black of space

The Juno spacecraft captured this Jupiter view in late May 2019.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

For instance, an achingly beautiful view of Jupiter and its moon, Ganymede, released earlier this year isn't colorized in blue tones at all -- and a composite image from last year might lead you to believe the Jovian lifestyle is shrouded in hellish flames. In reality, if we could hypothetically pop up next to Jupiter right now, we'd see those spirals projecting a variety of other colors – which fascinatingly depend on the chemistry and direction of each one. 

Counterclockwise and clockwise cyclones in Jupiter's northern hemisphere, as an example, offer their own separate palates. Counterclockwise and clockwise ones in the southern hemisphere also have their own. For context, Jupiter's "Great Red Spot" is a southern hemisphere, counterclockwise storm. 

Jupiter's Great Red Spot

This NASA image shows Jupiter's Great Red Spot.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

But apart from color schemes, scientists are also generally interested in understanding Jupiter's stormy weather because such knowledge could help decode information about Jovian clouds and fluid dynamics in the atmosphere. This endeavor is so important, in fact, that NASA has been trying to outsource the job of categorizing storm images and other atmospheric phenomena of Jupiter. 

You can even take part in what's called the "Jovian Vortex Hunter" project online. All you need is access to a cellphone or laptop – so far, per the agency, 2,404 volunteers have contributed to study 376,725 images for the mission. 

Zooming out, Jupiter is home to a great many mysteries, which is why the European Space Agency is poised to send its own probe toward the peach-striped ball of gas to join Juno's cosmic expedition. Others have even tried to explore whether Jupiter's nearly invisible, extremely frail rings could hold secrets to unlock the puzzles of this planet -- to no avail.