Jupiter, looking sharp

By Phil Plait | October 2, 2008 4:00 pm
ESO observation of Jupiter
Jupiter, looking sharp and hot

This weird-looking image is the sharpest picture of Jupiter ever taken from the ground. Taken with a device called — are you ready for this? — the Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics Demonstrator (or MAD, in an acronymic stretch), it has a resolution better than Hubble’s!

The Earth’s atmosphere roils and waves, distorting ground-based views of the sky. That’s one of the reasons we launch telescopes into space, to get above all that mess. But if you can observe a point-like object such as a star at the same time you observe your target object, it’s possible to compensate for the distortion by taking extremely rapid fire snapshots and measuring the way the star image changes. You then apply a correction to the image, and presto! It’s cleaner. However, you can only do this for the area near the star. Distortions change across a telescope’s field of view, making this technique somewhat limited.

That sort of tech has been around a while. The European Southern Observatory’s MAD is a big advance, though, in that it can use multiple test objects instead of just one. That means it can measure the atmospheric nastiness across a much larger area of the sky, allowing images of Jupiter like this one to be taken, where the entire planet enjoys a nice thorough cleaning.

Moreover, the astronomers making the observation were able to keep it together for two hours, so they made a way cool movie of Jupiter’s rotation.

The image colors are odd because this is an infrared picture. The telescope and detector observed Jupiter at wavelengths of about 2 microns, about three times redder than the human eye can see. At those wavelengths, hydrogen and methane are strong absorbers, meaning they block the light coming from deep down in Jupiter’s atmosphere. What you’re seeing here is light reflecting off of high haze, above the clouds we see in the usual jovian vistas.

See the bluish stuff at the poles? That’s probably made up of haze particles even higher in the atmosphere, where they can interact with Jupiter’s magnetic fields, causing them to emit more infrared light at shorter wavelengths.

Using this new method, scientists can track all sorts of weather on Jupiter better than they could before. That means we’ll understand weather in general better, which is one reason why we study other planets: we learn more about the Earth.

But we also do it because, after all, we love this stuff!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (19)

Links to this Post

  1. Neat Ground-Based Jupiter Photos « Tranching Reality | October 2, 2008
  1. kuhnigget

    I ‘specially love it when the Death Star comes sliding in there from the right toward the end.

    Seriously tho, a friend of mine was up at Mt. Wilson the other night and heard about the way the 100 inch telescope (I think it was the 100 inch) was using adaptive optics now. Way cool possibilities for upgrading old, historical scopes.

  2. JackC

    Way back when this type of adaptive optics was in it’s infancy, I recall they used a sodium LASER tuned to “create” an artifical star in the high atmosphere. Is this still done? Was it ever?

    JC

  3. Daniel

    Wow…I wish we could have gotten something like this when Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit…A-MA-ZING.

  4. Holy C#@P, Phil, this is a beautiful image. Thanks for sharing. Now, if I can only incorporate MAD with my scope, I’ll be happy.

  5. Bruce A

    That’s no space station…it’s a moon! Io, ain’t it? Looks pretty darned hot, whatever it is.

  6. @ JackC

    The answer to your two questions are: Yes, and yes. Click on my name for details.

  7. Grand Lunar

    Pretty cool!

    Resolution better than Hubble? Whoa!

    I’d like to see this used on Pluto or Eris.
    I’d also settle for Uranus and Neptune. Not enough pretty images of those planets are around!

  8. firemancarl

    Super duper uber cool! Er …. … hot!

  9. Was that Io sneaking into view at the end there…? If so, it’s extremely bright in near-IR!

  10. firemancarl

    Was the Red SPot on the other side of the planet when this was taken? I didn’t see it. I wonder how it would have looked in IR.

  11. Tig

    Did anyone else have a “Real Genius” flashback after they read the “Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics Demonstrator”?

    From the movie:

    “What do you think a secret phase conjugate tracking system is for, Kent?”

    I had to laugh.

  12. theinquisitor

    Fascinating. Will this technique make space-based telescopes obsolete?

  13. Macron

    “Will this technique make space-based telescopes obsolete?”

    Phil answered that question back in May, when I asked it in a video chat. He supposed recorded it, but it never made it onto his youtube channel.

    He said no, because space-based telescopes can still be used to see forms of radiation that get absorbed by the atmosphere.

  14. Macron
  15. Nigel Depledge

    theinquisitor said:

    Will this technique make space-based telescopes obsolete?

    Only to a limited extent. As Macron points out, there are several wavebands that are strongly absorbed by our atmosphere. Additionally, no amount of adaptive optics will allow you to see through a cloud, so a space telescope will always get more observing time than a ground-based one. Also, good observing sites on Earth are in short supply (due to weather, light pollution or whatever).

    Putting adaptive optics on a telescope in an old observatory may not be hugely productive in some cases, due to light pollution.

    Although, you can probably get 20 MAD telescopes on the ground for the price of one space-based one.

  16. American Voyager

    Macron,

    Sounds like space based optical telescopes may become obsolete though. What a thought! I never thought I’d hear of a day that ground would surpass Hubble. I wonder how much detail this could show on Jupiter’s moons.

  17. The Earth’s atmosphere roils and waves, distorting ground-based views of the sky. That’s one of the reasons we launch telescopes into space, to get above all that mess. But if you can observe a point-like object such as a star at the same time you observe your target object, it’s possible to compensate for the distortion by taking extremely rapid fire snapshots and measuring the way the star image changes. You then apply a correction to the image, and presto! It’s cleaner. However, you can only do this for the area near the star. Distortions change across a telescope’s field of view, making this technique somewhat limited

    Interestingly that’s some what, sort of, kind of how we used to correct for government scrambled GPS when I was in college. Take a known location point and time then reference GPS data against it to correct for what the Gov’t used to do to the GPS signals.

  18. MarkH

    @ Tig

    Yes I did. But brainlocked on the name of the movie.
    For some reason I had Wierd Science on the brain.

    Great picture, yet one more to add to my wall paper collection. :)

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