Fly over Jupiter in this stunning video from NASA’s Juno spacecraft

What if you could hitch a ride on NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter? We may be stuck on Earth, but the space agency has given us the next best option: a new video flyover of Jupiter based on photos from Juno’s recent flyby in June. 

The stunning video, which is made up of 41 images captured on June 2, gives us a glimpse of what we’d see if we were able to fly around Jupiter ourselves, combining pictures taken from different angles as the spacecraft sped by the solar system’s largest planet. 

Throughout the video, we see zoomed-in views of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere at Juno’s closest approach, when the spacecraft was about 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops, as well as zoomed-out views. At the spacecraft’s closest point to Jupiter, the gas giant’s powerful gravity sped the spacecraft up to an impressive 130,000 mph (209,000 kph) relative to the planet, according to a NASA statement

In photos: Juno’s amazing views of Jupiter

NASA compiled images taken from the agency’s Juno spacecraft to recreate a Jupiter flyby.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS )

Citizen scientist Kevin Gill created the video with data from Juno’s JunoCam, which digitally projects images onto a sphere with a virtual “camera,” giving us these beautiful views of Jupiter. These pictures were taken between 5:47 a.m. and 7:25 a.m. EDT (0947 and 1125 GMT) on June 2 as the spacecraft made its 27th close flyby of the planet. 

Juno launched in 2011 and, after a five-year trek through space, reached Jupiter in July 2016. The spacecraft circles the solar system’s largest planet taking data so we can understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Since its first flyby, Juno has provided incredible information about the planet, including an up-close look at Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a giant storm swirling through the planet’s atmosphere. 

Though the spacecraft was meant to take a dive into Jupiter’s atmosphere in 2018, NASA has extended its mission through 2021. 

Follow Kasandra Brabaw on Twitter @KassieBrabaw. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Juno mission observes ‘sprites’ dancing in Jupiter’s atmosphere

Blue sprites and elves have been detected twirling in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter by NASA’s Juno mission. While it may sound like something out of a fantasy novel, sprites and elves are actually two types of quick, bright flashes of light, or transient luminous events.



background pattern: A sprite is depicted at Jupiter in this illustration. Jupiter's hydrogen-rich atmosphere would likely make this luminous event appear blue.


© SwRI/JPL-Caltech/NASA
A sprite is depicted at Jupiter in this illustration. Jupiter’s hydrogen-rich atmosphere would likely make this luminous event appear blue.

Although these lightning-like flashes happen on Earth, this marks the first time these luminous events have been spotted on another planet.

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In European mythology, sprites are clever, fairy-like creatures. In science, they’re bright centers of light that are triggered by lightning and occur far above thunderstorms.

These phenomena occur on Earth, usually about 60 miles above large thunderstorms. Although the light from sprites brightening the sky can span 15 to 30 miles across, these flares last for just milliseconds. The shape of these flashes, like a jellyfish, extends both up and down toward the ground.

Elves, or Emission of Light and Very Low Frequency perturbations due to Electromagnetic Pulse Sources, are also quick flashes of light. They can brighten a larger area of the sky that can stretch as far as 200 miles across, and their shape looks more like a flat disk.

“On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in color due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere,” said lead study author and Juno planetary scientist Rohini S. Giles, in a statement. “But on Jupiter, the upper atmosphere mostly consists of hydrogen, so they would likely appear either blue or pink.”

The study published Tuesday in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

While scientists predicted Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere and massive storms could support the presence of these luminous events, they had never been observed.

The Juno mission went into orbit around Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, in 2016. Since then, it has helped to rewrite much of what scientists previously understood about Jupiter. So far, Juno has conducted 29 science flybys of Jupiter with its instruments on and collecting data about the planet.

Among the spacecraft’s instruments is an ultraviolet spectrograph, or UVS, that images Jupiter’s auroras in ultraviolet light.

But Juno’s team also believes the instrument has captured evidence of sprites and elves in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. The researchers spotted a disappearing bright flash of light in the ultraviolet data during the summer of 2019.

“UVS was designed to characterize Jupiter’s beautiful northern and southern lights,” said Giles, postdoctoral researcher at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “But we discovered UVS images that not only showed Jovian aurora, but also a bright flash of UV light over in the corner where it wasn’t supposed to be. The more our team looked into it, the more we realized Juno may have detected a (transient luminous event) on Jupiter.”

Juno has captured 11 of these bright flashes so far occurring in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere over a region where intense lightning-filled thunderstorms form.

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Juno data indicates ‘sprites’ or ‘elves’ frolic in Jupiter’s atmosphere

Juno data indicates 'sprites' or 'elves' frolic in Jupiter's atmosphere
The lightning phenomenon known as a sprite depicted at Jupiter in this illustration. Jupiter’s hydrogen-rich atmosphere would likely make them appear blue. In Earth’s upper atmosphere, the presence of nitrogen gives them a reddish color. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

New results from NASA’s Juno mission at Jupiter suggest that either “sprites” or “elves” could be dancing in the upper atmosphere of the solar system’s largest planet. It is the first time these bright, unpredictable and extremely brief flashes of light—formally known as transient luminous events, or TLE’s—have been observed on another world. The findings were published on Oct. 27, 2020, in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.


Scientists predicted these bright, superfast flashes of light should also be present in Jupiter’s immense roiling atmosphere, but their existence remained theoretical. Then, in the summer of 2019, researchers working with data from Juno’s ultraviolet spectrograph instrument (UVS) discovered something unexpected: a bright, narrow streak of ultraviolet emission that disappeared in a flash.

“UVS was designed to characterize Jupiter’s beautiful northern and southern lights,” said Giles, a Juno scientist and the lead author of the paper. “But we discovered UVS images that not only showed Jovian aurora, but also a bright flash of UV light over in the corner where it wasn’t supposed to be. The more our team looked into it, the more we realized Juno may have detected a TLE on Jupiter.”

Brief and Brilliant

Named after a mischievous, quick-witted character in English folklore, sprites are transient luminous events triggered by lightning discharges from thunderstorms far below. On Earth, they occur up to 60 miles (97 kilometers) above intense, towering thunderstorms and brighten a region of the sky tens of miles across, yet last only a few milliseconds (a fraction of the time it takes you to blink an eye).

Juno data indicates 'sprites' or 'elves' frolic in Jupiter's atmosphere
The south pole of Jupiter and a potential transient luminous event – a bright, unpredictable, and extremely brief flash of light – is seen in this annotated image of data acquired on April 10, 2020, from Juno’s UVS instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

Almost resembling a jellyfish, sprites feature a central blob of light (on Earth, it’s 15 to 30 miles, or 24 to 48 kilometers, across), with long tendrils extending both down toward the ground and upward. Elves (short for Emission of Light and Very Low Frequency perturbations due to Electromagnetic Pulse Sources) appear as a flattened disk glowing in Earth’s upper atmosphere. They, too, brighten the sky for mere milliseconds but can grow larger than sprites—up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) across on Earth.

Their colors are distinctive as well. “On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in color due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere,” said Giles. “But on Jupiter, the upper atmosphere mostly consists of hydrogen, so they would likely appear either blue or pink.”

Location, Location, Location

The occurrence of sprites and elves at Jupiter was predicted by several previously published studies. Synching with these predictions, the 11 large-scale bright events Juno’s UVS instrument has

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