Why NASA's Image of Jupiter's True Colors Is So Very Special
A dull beige image of the gas giant is arguably more mind-blowing than its colorful counterpart.
Monisha RavisettiFormer 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.
Nowadays, every time I view an image of something in the cosmos, I squint in suspicion before reveling in awe. I find myself questioning: Is this actually what that thing looks like?
Most of the time, scientists add artistic flourishes to their space-y images. This isn't just for fun (though it is quite fun), but because a little bit of colorizing goes a long way when emphasizing raw planetary visuals or depicting cosmic light undetectable by human pupils.
So, whenever I get to glance at an image of a realm beyond Earth I know isn't colorized, I stare a little longer than usual -- and last week we were blessed with one such marvel.
Behold, the left side of the following image, taken by NASA's Juno spacecraft. It's approximately how Jupiter's surface would appear if we could somehow gawk at it like we admire the moon. King of the solar system, indeed.
Can't help but peer at the right side? Same. But be careful. That's one of those suspicious processed images. It has an increased color saturation and contrast to sharpen small-scale Jovian features, NASA said in a statement. This manipulation was important to reduce noise or other artifacts in the portrait, the agency explains.
"This clearly reveals some of the most intriguing aspects of Jupiter's atmosphere," NASA said, "including color variation that results from differing chemical composition, the three-dimensional nature of Jupiter's swirling vortices, and the small, bright 'pop-up' clouds that form in the higher parts of the atmosphere."
Of course, this version of Jupiter's marbled skin is undeniably more visually striking – but consider how the left-side is our reality. Out in space, there's an orb made of swirling gas that could fit more than 1,300 Earths within. And…it probably looks just like that?
Our latest special lens on Jupiter is thanks to citizen scientist Björn Jónsson, who collected and compiled publicly available data taken with NASA's Juno mission. Juno is a spacecraft that spans the width of a basketball court and makes long, looping orbits around the red-brown world while capturing information and images about its planetary muse.
Since it launched from Earth in 2011, Juno has been a force.
Regarding the new gas giant image revealed by Jónsson, Juno was about 3,300 miles (5,300 kilometers) above Jupiter's cloud tops at a latitude of about 50 degrees. "At that moment, the spacecraft was traveling at about 130,000 mph (209,000 kilometers per hour) relative to the planet," NASA said.
Yet another win for Juno, and another introspective space treasure for us.
It's things like this that elicit some sort of strange feeling in me -- a mixture of existential dread, amazement, silence. They're reminders of our small, yet remarkably intelligent, vantage point of the universe.