The planet Jupiter has captivated humans for centuries. As the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter is a sight to behold through even a small backyard telescope. Its swirling cloud bands and famous Great Red Spot reveal a dynamic, colorful, and changing world. But what exact color is Jupiter? Understanding Jupiter’s true colors has been an ongoing quest for astronomers and planetary scientists. In this article, we’ll examine what NASA reveals about the colors of Jupiter based on images and data sent back from various space missions over the years.
NASA Missions and Spacecraft Studying Jupiter
NASA has a long history of sending robotic spacecraft to study Jupiter up close. These missions have provided glimpses of Jupiter’s auroras, lightning storms, and swirling atmospheres. Some key NASA missions to Jupiter include:
- Pioneer 10 – Flew by Jupiter in 1973, capturing images of the planet and its moons.
- Pioneer 11 – Another flyby in 1974, Pioneer 11 took close-up photos of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.
- Voyager 1 and 2 – Conducted flybys in 1979, beaming back images and data on Jupiter’s atmosphere, rings, and moons.
- Galileo – Orbited Jupiter for 8 years starting in 1995. Galileo sent back images of Jupiter’s atmosphere, storms, and moons.
- Juno – Currently orbiting Jupiter since 2016, studying its interior structure, magnetic fields, and polar auroras.
- Europa Clipper – Planned for launch in 2024 to extensively study Jupiter’s moon Europa.
With this fleet of spacecraft, NASA has accumulated a wealth of data on the solar system’s largest planet. When it comes to Jupiter’s coloration, several of these missions have provided scientists with important clues.
Jupiter’s Upper Cloud Layers
Jupiter is a gas giant, meaning it has no solid surface. However, Jupiter does have cloud layers extending dozens of miles above its gaseous interior. These cloud decks are composed of ammonia and ammonium hydrosulfide particles, condensed from gases in Jupiter’s frigid upper atmosphere.
|Ammonia ice clouds
|Ammonia ice crystals
|Ammonium hydrosulfide clouds
|Hydrosulfide ice crystals
These upper cloud layers appear light yellow, orange, brown, and even reddish in color. But what causes Jupiter’s clouds to take on these warm hues? The answer has to do with chemistry.
Chemical Compositions Creating Color
Within Jupiter’s cloud decks are traces of complex organic molecules called chromophores. These colorful compounds interact with sunlight, absorbing certain wavelengths while reflecting others, causing Jupiter’s clouds to appear yellow, orange, and brown.
Some potential chromophores giving Jupiter its colors include:
- Propyne (C3H4) – Absorbs blue light, causing a yellow color.
- Polyacetylenes – Chain-like hydrocarbons that absorb blue and green light.
- Sulfur compounds – React to make reddish-brown colors.
These chromophores exist in tiny concentrations, yet they have an outsized impact on the resulting colors we see. Scientists are still researching the exact chemical processes occurring within Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere to produce its vibrant colors.
Great Red Spot and Other Features
In addition to Jupiter’s ordinary banded cloud layers, the planet has some extraordinary and long-lived storm features that add to its visual complexity. The most famous is Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, first observed over 300 years ago. This spinning vortex is big enough to swallow the Earth.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured this view of Jupiter’s iconic Great Red Spot in 2017 (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt/Sean Doran)
The Great Red Spot’s striking color comes from high altitude atmospheric gases being dredged up from deeper layers. This churning action mixes chromophores together to produce the feature’s reddish hue.
Other spots and ovals on Jupiter also derive color from internal mixing. White ovals like the one below appear when fresh ammonia ice crystals are brought upward, reflecting more sunlight.
A rare white oval storm captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft in 2017 (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/ Gerald Eichstadt/Sean Doran)
Aurora Color Shows Jupiter’s Magnetism
Jupiter’s poles light up with dazzling auroras, similar to Earth’s northern and southern lights. These form when charged particles from the Sun interact with gases in Jupiter’s atmosphere and its strong magnetic field.
The Juno spacecraft captured these stunning views of Jupiter’s auroras using its ultraviolet and infrared instruments. The auroras glow in brilliant hues of purple, teal, green and pink.
Jupiter’s northern lights glow in this infrared image from NASA’s Juno spacecraft (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM)
These auroral displays demonstrate Jupiter’s powerful magnetism. The auroras’ locations at the poles match where Jupiter’s magnetic field lines converge and drive charged particles into the atmosphere.
Clues to Jupiter’s Inner Composition
While the upper cloud layers produce Jupiter’s visible colors, the planet’s deeper interior also holds clues to its ultimate coloration. Below the cloud tops, Jupiter is thought to transition gradually into a dense, hot fluid mix of hydrogen and helium surrounding a possible solid core.
Under the immense pressures deeper inside the planet, exotic states of hydrogen exist. Models suggest Jupiter’s interior consists of:
- Metallic hydrogen – A conductive fluid state under high pressure.
- Liquid metallic hydrogen – A phase with characteristics of liquid metal.
The elemental makeup of Jupiter’s interior means any visible light emanating from deeper layers would likely be shades of orange and red. However, with no solid surface and an atmosphere thicker than 1,000 Earths stacked together, we have no direct visual evidence of Jupiter’s deeper coloration.
While a tapestry of orange, yellow, brown, and red hues decorate Jupiter’s cloud tops, the planet’s exact color has challenged scientists for decades. Data from NASA missions continues to provide insights into the complex chemistry, atmospheric motions, and interactions with the Sun’s light that make Jupiter such an artwork of colors.
The Juno spacecraft now orbiting Jupiter has especially advanced our understanding, even providing glimpses of swirling structures below the cloud layers. As visual technology improves, future missions will hopefully reveal Jupiter’s patterns and colors in higher definition, capturing this gas giant world in all its artistic glory.