NASA probe grazes Jupiter's clouds in brush with Great Red Spot

NASA probe grazes Jupiter’s clouds in brush with Great Red Spot

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NASA probe grazes Jupiter’s clouds in brush with Great Red Spot

 A NASA spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter began broadcasting data and images Tuesday from the nearest human-brush to the Great Red Spot, a flyby of the colossal crimson storm that has fascinated Earth observers for hundreds of years.

The Juno spacecraft recorded its close encounter with Jupiter’s most distinctive feature Monday night in the Pacific, when it passed some 5,600 miles (9,000 km) above the clouds of the gigantic cyclone.

But it will take days for the readings captured by the Juno camera series and other instruments to be delivered to the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and much more so for the data to be analyzed.

Scientists hope exercise will help unravel such mysteries as the forces driving the storm, how long it has existed, how deeply it penetrates into the lower atmosphere of the planet, and why it seems to be gradually dissipating.

Astronomers also believe that a greater understanding of the Great Red Spot can give clues about the structure, mechanics and formation of Jupiter as a whole.

“This is a storm bigger than the entire Earth, it has been there for hundreds of years, we want to know what marks it,” said Steve Levin, the lead scientist for the Juno JPL project.

Levin said the storm is believed to be driven by the energy flowing from the interior of Jupiter combined with the rotation of the planet, but precise internal functioning is unknown.

Some of the most valuable data on Monday’s flight are expected to come from an instrument designed to look at the red dot at six different depths, Levin said.

The scrambling cyclone classifies as the largest known storm in the solar system, measuring about 10,000 miles (16,000 km) in diameter with winds driven at hundreds of miles per hour around its outer edges. It appears as a deep red orb, surrounded by layers of pale yellow, orange and white.

The red spot has been continuously monitored from Earth since about 1830, although observations believed to have been of the same characteristic date back more than 350 years.

Once wide enough to swallow three Earth-sized planets, the famous Jovian weather system has been declining for the past 100 years and may disappear altogether.

However, the spot remains the most prominent feature of the planet’s largest solar system, a gigantic ball of gas – mostly hydrogen and helium – 11 times the diameter of Earth with more than twice the mass of all other planets Combined.

Monday’s meeting with the Great Red Spot was the last of the 12 overflight missions currently scheduled by NASA for Juno, which will make its next approach to the clouds of Jupiter on September 1.

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