As Jupiter awaits the imminent arrival of NASA's Juno space probe, a team of scientists from the United Kingdom released spectacular new infrared images of the gas giant and its constantly shifting atmosphere.
Led by Leigh Fletcher of the University of Leicester, astronomers used the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope to capture infrared images of the planet in an effort to create high-resolution maps.
The infrared observations will help support the work to be undertaken by the Juno space probe in the coming months, and it has allowed astronomers to better understand the massive planet ahead of the spacecraft's close encounter.
The current project involved the use of telescopes based in Chile and Hawaii, as well as contributions from other amateur astronomers from around the world.
The maps do not just offer a glimpse of the gas giant, but they also reveal how the planet's atmosphere has been changing and shifting in the days before Juno's arrival.
The Juno space probe, which is expected to enter the polar orbit of Jupiter on July 4, will pierce through the planet's stormy atmosphere through the help of infrared and plasma waves in order to investigate its characteristics.
Launched in 2011, Juno has already traveled approximately 3,000 million kilometers (1.9 billion miles) to reach the Jovian system.
Typical spacecraft can freely gather data as it does not have the limitations that often affect telescopes on Earth. With that in mind, astronomers say it might seem surprising that the ground-based Juno program is considered important.
But it is. Fletcher says the maps are important because they will help lay the foundation for what Juno will accomplish in the coming months.
He says observations at different wavelengths across the infrared spectrum will allow them to piece together a three-dimensional picture of how material and energy are transported upward through the planet's atmosphere.
Ground-based telescopes find it difficult to capture sharp images through the Earth's constantly changing atmosphere. But scientists say this glimpse of Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere, which ripples with cooler gas clouds, was possible because of a technique called "lucky imaging."
The VISIR instrument on the ESO's Very Large Telescope captured sequences of very brief exposures of Jupiter, producing thousands of individual frames. These frames, where the image is least affected by the turbulence of the atmosphere, are selected while the rest are discarded. The selected frames are combined and aligned to produce remarkable final images.
The new images were presented at the National Astronomy Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in Nottingham.