Here's the Closest View of Jupiter's Great Red Spot That Humans Have Ever Seen

NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran © PUBLIC DOMAIN
NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran © PUBLIC DOMAIN

NASA's Juno spacecraft completed perijove 7 yesterday, flying nearest to Jupiter in its 53-day orbit and collecting intimate science a mere 5600 miles above the gas giant's cloud tops. This flyby took the spacecraft directly over Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a centuries-old, 10,000-mile-wide vermilion vortex that has long perplexed scientists. Among the storm's unknowns are its depth and perpetuating forces. The first raw images of the Earth-sized hurricane were released today.

"This is a storm that we've been tracking ever since the dawn of modern astronomy, and we're the first generation to get this exquisite level of detail," Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester, tells Mental Floss. He says that from the spacecraft's perspective, the Great Red Spot would have stretched from horizon to horizon.

Juno has thus far given us a startling new vision of Jupiter—one of teeming teals and swirling storms—and caused scientists to sharpen their pencils and rewrite much of what they knew about the solar system's largest planet. Today's initial image data promise no less a revolution in the scientific understanding of Jupiter.

What does the Great Red Spot look like from an expert's perspective? "I see a swirl of red cloud material as the vortex spirals anti-clockwise, a deep-red heart that coincides with the calm center of the powerful winds, and clusters of small-scale clouds that stand above the red depths," says Fletcher. "There's even evidence of waves in the spiral arms in these breathtaking images. It's an incredible level of detail in an image that's set to become instantly iconic."

sequential views of the great red spot of jupiter
Enhanced, filtered, and color-adjusted images of the Great Red Spot, in sequential order, showing the changing view from the spacecraft as it passed over the 10,000-mile-wide storm.
Ted Stryk © PUBLIC DOMAIN

Today's image release is just a taste of what is to come, of course. The spacecraft had all nine of its science instruments active during the pass, and data are being blasted back to the Deep Space Network at the speed of light. "For me, the real science always starts with spectroscopy," says Fletcher, "assessing the fingerprints of the gaseous composition and aerosols that are present within the storm." Juno's science payload allows scientists to peer hundreds of miles beneath Jupiter's clouds. "For years we've tried to understand how deep [the Great Red Spot] penetrates into the atmosphere, and what might be sustaining it. By probing below the clouds with the microwave instrument, we might just find the answers we've been looking for."

The Juno spacecraft launched on August 5, 2011 and achieved orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. The next flyby of Jupiter will take place on September 1. It will mark the spacecraft's eighth orbit and seventh science flyby.

Want to see more amazing images? Head over to NASA's JunoCam.

How to See the Full Sturgeon Moon on Thursday

Brook Mitchell, Stringer/Getty Images
Brook Mitchell, Stringer/Getty Images

The full moon of every month has a special nickname. Some—like September's harvest moon, December's cold moon, and May's flower moon—have obvious connections to their seasons, while other names are harder to decode. August's sturgeon moon is an example of the latter. It may not be the prettiest lunar title in The Old Farmer's Almanac, but that doesn't mean the event itself on August 15, 2019 won't be a spectacular sight to behold.

What is a Full Sturgeon Moon?

The first (and normally the only) full moon that occurs in August is called a sturgeon moon. The name may have originated with Native American tribes living around the Great Lakes in the Midwest and Lake Champlain in New England. These bodies of water contain lake sturgeon, a species of freshwater fish that grows up to 6.5 feet in length and can live 55 years or longer. August's full moon was dubbed the sturgeon moon to reflect its harvesting season. This full moon is sometimes called the green corn moon, the grain moon, and the blackberry moon for similar reasons.

When to See the Full Sturgeon Moon

On Thursday, August 15, the full sturgeon moon will be highly visible around sunrise and sunset. The satellite will be 99.9 percent illuminated by the sun when it sets Thursday morning at 5:57 a.m EDT—just nine minutes before dawn. On the West Coast, the setting moon will coincide perfectly with the rising sun at 6:15 a.m. PDT.

If you aren't interested in getting out of bed early to catch the sturgeon moon, wait until Thursday evening to look to the horizon. Twenty-seven minutes after sunset, the full moon will rise on the East Coast at 8:21 p.m. EDT. On the West Coast it rises at 8:10 p.m. PDT, 30 minutes after the sun sets.

The moon generally looks bigger and brighter when it's near the horizon, so twilight and dawn are ideal times to catch the spectacle. But it's worth taking another peek at the sky closer to midnight Thursday night; the Perseid meteor shower is currently active, and though the light of the moon may wash them out, you're most likely to spot a shooting star in the late night and early morning hours.

A Full Harvest Moon Is Coming in September

suerob/iStock via Getty Images
suerob/iStock via Getty Images

The Old Farmer's Almanac lists a special name for every month's full moon, from January's wolf moon to December's cold moon. Even if you're just a casual astronomy fan, you've likely heard the name of September's full moon. The harvest moon is the full moon that falls closest to the fall equinox, and it's associated with festivals celebrating the arrival of autumn. Here's what you need to know before catching the event this year.

What is a harvest moon?

You may have heard that the harvest moon is special because it appears larger and darker in the night sky. This may be true depending on what time of night you look at it, but these features are not unique to the harvest moon.

Throughout the year, the moon rises on average 50 minutes later each night than it did the night before. This window shrinks in the days surrounding the fall equinox. In mid-latitudes, the moon will rise over the horizon only 25 minutes to 30 minutes later night after night. This means the moonrise will occur around sunset several evenings in a row.

So what does this mean for the harvest moon? If you're already watching the sunset and you catch the moonrise at the same time, it will appear bigger than usual thanks to something called the moon illusion. It may also take on an orange-y hue because you're gazing at it through the thick filter of the Earth's atmosphere, which absorbs blue light and projects red light. So if you've only seen the full harvest moon around sunset, you may think it always looks especially big and orange, while in reality, any full moon will look that way when it's just above the horizon.

When to See the Harvest Moon

This year, the harvest moon will be visible the night of Saturday, September 14—about a week before the fall equinox on September 23. The moon will reach its fullest state at 12:33 a.m. ET—but if you're still convinced it's not a true harvest moon without that pumpkin-orange color, you can look for it at moonrise at 7:33 p.m. on September 13.

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