The worst storm in the solar system

Whenever you want to have a non-controversial conversation with someone you don’t know very well, it’s a safe bet that talking about the weather will do the trick. Everyone has some memorable weather stories — getting soaked in a downpour, the air conditioning breaking during a heat wave, camping in a sudden cold snap, or watching a big storm.

Everybody remembers a storm that threw a wrench into things — from the outskirts of a hurricane to a local tornado to a rip-roaring thunderstorm, even — dare we say it? — one of the area’s infamous ice storms, which broke the power line leading to your house, so you had to move into a hotel for a few days…

But you can say what you want about the weather here on Earth — even our most devastating storms are downright puny when it comes to weather on our planetary neighbors, especially the outer gas giants. By the way — that storm you saw at the beginning of “The Martian”? Totally bogus. There’s not enough of an atmosphere on Mars to move more than the absolute finest dust particles. But hey, it was Hollywood’s version of Mars, so why not?

But let’s take a closer look at Jupiter, since our intrepid explorer pal Juno has been taking absolutely stunning close-ups of the giant planet lately. Along with being the biggest planet in the neighborhood, Jupiter also boasts an incredible number of moons (69 at the latest count, though not all have been confirmed or named yet), a mindboggling radiation environment, and yes, the infamous Great Red Spot.

The Great Red Spot is actually a very long-lived storm, and it puts everything we have ever seen here on our fair planet to shame. It’s been around for possibly 350 years — perhaps even much longer. Can you imagine that weather forecast? “Tomorrow: the hurricane continues. Expect winds up to 270 miles an hour.” And it goes like that for generations!

New photos from Juno show intricate details of the Great Red Spot — storms within the storm, subtle color variations, swirls, dark and light areas. And here’s the best part: Juno only sends back raw, unprocessed images that look strangely boring and washed out at first glance. Available to anyone with internet access at the images are in the public domain, which means anyone can use them as they see fit.

And that’s where dedicated image processing geeks come out in droves. If you’ve ever played with filters for a photo you took, say, on Instagram, you know how it works: using a special filter will make your images sharper, add more contrast or intensify or mute natural colors. It’s quite a challenge to find exactly the right filter, or tweak the colors and contrast manually to achieve the desired effect. The awesome images you see online have all been processed to enhance details. Juno’s primary mission is to study Jupiter’s inner workings — the camera is just along for the ride as so much gravy, so it’s not a particularly fancy one. But unlike scientific measurements which may lead to groundbreaking discoveries, photos are something that we can understand, even with impaired vision. We can describe what we see to those that can’t, and we can share the joy in that way as well.

And while the Great Red Spot might look less intense in real life, it does not diminish the awe it inspires. Its sheer longevity is nothing short of mind-boggling. Let’s just be grateful we have nothing like that here on Earth, beautiful as it may be.

Image processing has also revealed an amazingly textured surface at Jupiter’s poles, thanks to Juno’s camera. Juno is the first spacecraft to ever snap pictures from those angles, and every close approach gives us more beauty shots to ooh and aah over.