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Credit, International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley)

A team of researchers recently released some of the sharpest images of Jupiter ever taken from the ground. Images captured with the Gemini North telescope on Maunakea help reveal how the planet’s massive storms form and confirm dark spots in its famous Great Red Spot are gaps not a variation in cloud color.

Some of the most key observations in the study were obtained with the Near Infrared Imager (NIRI), an instrument that the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy (IfA) built for Gemini more than two decades ago. Researchers used a technique with NIRI called lucky imaging, in which a large number of short exposure images are taken and only the sharpest ones are kept.

“This trick works so well only because of the exceptional quality of observing conditions on Maunakea. At inferior sites, you might not get any sharp images,” said IfA Astronomer Klaus Hodapp who led the UH team that built NIRI for Gemini. “NIRI’s success is a testament to IfA’s expertise in detector technology, optics and cryo-mechanical engineering.”

Jupiter’s “jack-o-lantern” glow

NIRI enabled researchers to look deeply into Jupiter’s massive storms which exposed images that create a “jack-o-lantern” effect. Because infrared radiation passes through thin haze but is blocked by thicker clouds, deep layers of the planet’s atmosphere glow through gaps in Jupiter’s thick cloud cover.

Observations from Gemini were combined with imaging from the Hubble Space Telescope in support of NASA’s Juno mission. The joint observing program has given scientists a better understanding of Jupiter’s wind patterns, atmospheric waves and cyclones.

The research team’s results published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series show lightning flashes on the gas giant planet are up to three times more powerful than Earth’s largest bolts. Lightning strikes are formed in gigantic convective cells five times taller than similar cells on Earth.

The newly-released imagery will be used by scientists to track weather patterns on Jupiter.

Photo credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley)
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