How NASA captured Jupiter in stunning 4K Ultra HD

Hubble's 8 million-pixel images of Jupiter's Great Red Spot are a sign of things to come

Hubble telescope 4K image of Jupiter

Main image: Hubble has created a giant 4K rendering of Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Goddard/UCBerkeley/JPL-Caltech/STScI

4K Ultra HD may not be changing the world just yet, but it's already changing astronomers' understanding of other worlds. As part of NASA's plan to embrace 4K video across all platforms, the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) recently produced two reels of Jupiter's Giant Red Spot rendered in 3840 x 2160 pixels.

The stunning images, which can be viewed here and downloaded here as a 10.2GB MOV file, show the huge planet rotating almost twice. The extra detail in the images of the planet's 150-mile long permanent storm have helped astronomers find a 'wave cloud' first detected by the Voyager 2 probe in 1970s.

Tantalizing hints

"Every time we look at Jupiter, we get tantalizing hints that something really exciting is going on," said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "This time is no exception."

Jupiter s atmosphere
The Hubble Space Telescope's image of Jupiter's atmosphere. Image credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), M. Wong (UC Berkeley), and G. Orton (JPL-Caltech)

The two Ultra HD video maps of Jupiter rotating have not only helped Simon and her colleagues calculate the speeds of Jupiter's winds, but have revealed a wave just north of the planet's equator where cyclones form, as well as a twisting 'streamer' in the core of the Great Red Spot that had never been noticed before. The 3840 x 2160-pixel videos also helped confirm that the Great Red Spot is continuing to shrink.

As part of the same Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy program – designed to help scientists understand the atmospheres of Earth, the giant planets, and exo-planets now being discovered around other stars – similarly detailed videos of Neptune and Uranus will follow. There are also plans to produce videos of Saturn.

WFC3 and 4K video

Installed back in 2009 by astronauts on the Space Shuttle Atlantis – the last time Hubble was, and will ever be, serviced – WFC3 can image in both visible ultraviolet and near-infrared (which is radiation, visible to humans only through night-vision goggles). For the former, a regular 16-megapixel CCD, like those found in digital cameras (only of far higher sensitivity and with lower noise), was provided by UK-based tech company e2V. A less detailed image is possible in near-infrared (just a megapixel), but it lets WFC3 'see' a broad range of wavelengths.

Jupiter Great Red Spot
Hubble zoomed in on Jupiter's Great Red Spot in various wavelengths. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Goddard/UCBerkeley/JPL-Caltech/STScI

Although it gives 35 times more detailed images than prior to 2009, and can help to produce Ultra HD video, WFC3 is merely a stop-gap until NASA completely replaces Hubble by launching the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. Will the James Webb be more powerful? Just a bit: with 100 times more detailed images, the new telescope will see back in time to the very edge of the universe.

NASA plans a 4K TV channel

As reported back in September, NASA is planning a dedicated 4K TV channel in partnership with Harmonic. The 4K videos from Hubble are part of NASA's preparation for the channel's planned launch on 1 November, which will include hi-res images and 4K video remastered from the original film of historical missions like Apollo. However, NASA already has its own YouTube channel, which contains 4K images from the ISS and more.

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst took some stunning time-lapse videos of the Northern Lights, star trails and more – all in 4K Ultra HD – while on the International Space Station last year. The videos were made from stills shot once per second and played at 25 frames per second.

Biggest image ever

Milky Way Eta Carinae
A small section of the 46 billion-pixel Milky Way photo, showing Eta Carinae. Image credit: Lehrstuhl für Astrophysik, RUB