By Amy B Wang / The Washington Post
Amid plenty of political turmoil on Earth on Thursday, NASA and the European Space Agency quietly released the latest photo of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
This picture revealed no new discoveries, unlike a Hubble image last fall that detected evidence of water vapor plumes from one of Jupiter’s moons. Nor did it capture the aftermath of some significant event, such as when a comet or asteroid collided with Jupiter’s atmosphere and left it “bruised.”
Instead, Thursday’s picture was simply a reminder that, somewhere out there above the heavens, a decades-old space telescope is still doing what it has done best: capturing spectacularly detailed images of the universe to blow the minds of those on Earth.
This month, Jupiter is in opposition, meaning it is at its closest to our planet (416 million miles away), with its Earth-facing hemisphere fully illuminated by the sun. It will shine especially brightly Friday night and early Saturday morning, when it makes its absolute closest approach.
Never ones to miss an opportunity, NASA and the ESA decided to point the Hubble toward Jupiter while it was in opposition, so that it could capture the atmosphere of the largest planet in the solar system in more detail.
The image it took Monday didn’t disappoint. Hubble was able to capture surface features that are just 80 miles across.
“The final image shows a sharp view of Jupiter and reveals a wealth of features in its dense atmosphere,” NASA and the ESA, which cooperate on the Hubble project, said in a statement. The picture “reveals the intricate, detailed beauty of Jupiter’s clouds as arranged into bands of different latitudes.”
Clearly visible in the photo are Jupiter’s famous atmospheric bands, created by different-colored clouds. The lighter bands have higher concentrations of frozen ammonia in them, compared with the darker ones, the agencies said.
On the lower left side of the image is Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot, an ongoing larger-than-Earth storm on the gas giant planet’s surface. A smaller storm, dubbed “Red Spot Junior,” is visible farther south. Winds on the planet can reach up to 400 mph.
“However, as with the last images of Jupiter taken by Hubble and telescopes on the ground, this new image confirms that the huge storm that has raged on Jupiter’s surface for at least 150 years continues to shrink,” the agencies said. “The reason for this is still unknown. So Hubble will continue to observe Jupiter in the hope that scientists will solve this stormy riddle.”
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit in 1990, and ever since its first photo — an underwhelming grainy, black-and-white image of some stars, thanks to a flaw in a primary mirror — it has gone on to deliver some truly dazzling images from space. Time magazine has a roundup of the 50 “best” photos taken by Hubble, though all are quite extraordinary in their own way, depending on one’s interest in any particular corner of the universe.
NASA has been developing a new telescope, the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, that will be able to see back in time, almost to the beginning of the universe. The Webb will be able to collect seven times the starlight as the Hubble and observe the universe in infrared wavelengths of light, which the Hubble can’t, The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach reported in February. Eventually, the Webb telescope is expected to replace the Hubble, which “is still working fabulously but getting long in the tooth,” Achenbach wrote.
Until then, the Hubble will continue capturing away. The photo released Thursday was part of the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy program, according to NASA and the ESA. The program, which allows the telescope to study the outer planets each year, started in 2014 with Uranus and has been observing Jupiter and Neptune since 2015. In 2018, the Hubble will turn its focus to Saturn.