James Webb Telescope Provides New Perspective On Jupiter’s Great Red Spot

By James Anderson •  Updated: 08/22/22 •  4 min read

New infrared images of Jupiter from the James Webb Space Telescope show intricate lacework around the Great Red Spot and the edges of the planet’s coloured bands. In addition, the images, artificially coloured to make certain features prominent, give an unrivalled view of the auroras over the north and south poles.

The images were released on August 22 as part of the telescope’s Early Release Science program.

A wide-field image offers a stunning array of Jupiter, its faint rings and two of the planet’s smaller moons, Amalthea and Adrastea, on a background of galaxies.

“We’ve never seen Jupiter like this. It’s all quite incredible. We hadn’t really expected it to be this good, to be honest. It’s really remarkable that we can see details on Jupiter together with its rings, tiny satellites and even galaxies in one image,”

said Imke de Pater, of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the scientific observations of the planet with professor Thierry Fouchet, from the Paris Observatory.

ames Webb Space Telescope images of Jupiter display a stunning wealth of detail

A filter sensitive to auroral emission from ionized hydrogen (mapped into the red channel) reveals auroral ovals on the disk of the planet that extend to high altitudes above both the northern and southern poles. A different filter sensitive to high-altitude hazes (mapped into the green channel) highlights the polar hazes that swirl around the northern and southern poles, while a third filter highlights light reflected from the deeper main cloud (mapped in the blue channel). The Great Red Spot, the equatorial region and compact (including tiny) cloud regions appear white (or reddish-white) in this false-color image. Regions with little cloud cover appear as dark ribbons north of the equatorial region. Other dark regions here, both next to the Great Red Spot and in cyclonic features in the south hemisphere, are also dark-colored when observed in visible light.
Credit: NASA, European Space Agency, Jupiter Early Release Science team. Image processing: Judy Schmidt

Storms And Vortex Pattern Perspectives On Jupiter

Multiple storm systems are also visible as small pallid ovals. Tiny bright plumes of cloud particles, the transition between organized zonal flows and the chaotic vortex patterns at higher latitudes are also clearly visible.

Astronomers have previously observed many of these features of Jupiter before. But the James Webb Space Telescope’s infrared wavelength instrumentation presents a new perspective.

“JWST’s combination of images and spectra at near- and mid-infrared wavelengths will allow us to study the interplay of dynamics, chemistry and temperature structure in and above the Great Red Spot and the auroral regions,”

said de Pater.

Adrastea and Amalthea

false color composite image of Jupiter

This false color composite image of Jupiter from the NIRCam instrument on board the James Webb Space Telescope on July 27, 2022.
The wide-field color scheme differs from the color composite because this imaging mode used different exposure times and only two filters, mapped in orange and cyan colors. The image shows Jupiter’s rings and some of its small satellites together with background galaxies. Amalthea (~250 x 150 km across) and tiny Adrastea (~20 km across) are visible in this image. The diffraction pattern created by the bright auroras, as well as the moon Io (just off to the left, not visible in the image), form a complex background of scattered light around Jupiter.
Credit: NASA, European Space Agency, Jupiter Early Release Science team. Image processing: Ricardo Hueso [UPV/EHU] and Judy Schmidt

The Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) also captured a wide-field view of Jupiter showing its rings and two of its moons. The image is a showpiece for the sensitivity and dynamic range of the NIRCam instrument.

“It reveals the bright waves, swirls and vortices in Jupiter’s atmosphere and simultaneously captures the dark ring system, 1 million times fainter than the planet, as well as the moons Amalthea and Adrastea, which are roughly 200 and 20 kilometers across, respectively. This one image sums up the science of our Jupiter system program, which studies the dynamics and chemistry of Jupiter itself, its rings and its satellite system,”

Fouchet said.

Spectroscopic observations of Jupiter’s auroras are scheduled for later this year. Detailed spectroscopic observations of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot were taken on July 27 in the near-infrared and August 14-15 at mid-infrared wavelengths.

The Great Red Spot observations are a joint project involving the Early Release Science (ERS) team, with de Pater and Fouchet as co-principal investigators, in cooperation with a program of Solar System observations developed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy’s Heidi Hammel. The Jupiter observations are led by Leigh Fletcher, a professor at the University of Leicester in England.