Jupiter's Great Red Spot Revealed in Images Processed by Citizen Scientists, Not NASA

7-13-17 Jupiter Gerald Eichstadt Jason Major
Jason Major cropped and did additional processing on an image first published by Gerald Eichstädt using raw data from NASA's Juno spacecraft. NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Jason Major

Jason Major isn’t a scientist and he’s not an employee of NASA: He’s a self-employed graphic designer from Warwick, Rhode Island, who happens to have a longstanding interest in space. It’s Major and other citizen scientists who have been processing the raw images coming back from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter and releasing striking photographs.

7-13-17 Jupiter Jason Major 1 This enhanced-color image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot was created by citizen scientist Jason Major using data from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft. The image was taken on July 10, 2017 at 10:10 p.m. ET, as Juno performed its 7th close flyby of Jupiter when the spacecraft was about 8,648 miles from the tops of the clouds of the planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major

On Monday, the spacecraft got closer than ever before to the Great Red Spot, a giant swirling storm—larger than the Earth—that has been raging at least since 1830. As it passed by, the JunoCam captured images that were downlinked on Tuesday and posted in raw form on Wednesday morning, even sooner than scientists expected. Scott Bolton, the principal investigator for the Juno mission, told Newsweek on Monday that images were expected by the weekend or possibly Friday. When the raw data arrive, NASA posts them online and allows the public to create processed images and upload them back onto the JunoCam website.

“Some of the most beautiful pictures have been made by the public,” Bolton said on Monday. And, he added, they’re “usually faster than we are.”

Related: Making history, NASA explores Great Red Spot on Jupiter, a mysterious storm pattern larger than Earth

Spectacular images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot processed by amateur scientists began pouring onto the JunoCam website on Wednesday, including submissions by Major. NASA highlighted his work in a feature the agency posted on Wednesday, along with images from Kevin Gill and Gerald Eichstädt.

7-13-17 Jupiter Gerald Eichstädt This enhanced-color image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot was created by citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt using data from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft. It's strongly enhanced to draw viewers’ eyes to the iconic storm and the turbulence around it. The image was taken on July 10, 2017 at 10:07 p.m. ET when Juno was about 6,130 miles from the tops of the clouds of the planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt

“These highly-anticipated images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot are the ‘perfect storm’ of art and science. With data from Voyager, Galileo, New Horizons, Hubble and now Juno, we have a better understanding of the composition and evolution of this iconic feature,” Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, said in a statement. “We are pleased to share the beauty and excitement of space science with everyone.”

7-13-17 Jupiter 2 Image processed with Photoshop using High Pass Filters and many color adjustments to bring out detail. Nico Carver

Major, who creates admissions and alumni materials primarily for higher education clients, has been fascinated by space, nature, animals and all kinds of science topics since he was a kid, and has been writing and sharing information about space exploration for about eight years on his blog, titled Lights in the Dark. Six years ago, he had the chance to attend the launch of the Juno spacecraft in Cape Canaveral in Florida. Now that Juno has arrived at Jupiter and entered the planet’s orbit, he’s thrilled to see the images coming back from the spacecraft he watched take off into space on an Atlas V rocket. As he does his freelance work from home or at a coffee shop, he makes a habit of tracking what data are coming down and quickly processing raw images.

7-13-17 Jupiter 1 Richard Oesterling

“It seemed natural to me to want to combine those two interests—I could combine art and science and share it with other people,” he says. “It’s not only something I can enjoy looking at, but something I can participate in.”  

7-13-17 Jupiter 3 NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Roman Tkachenko

The images that come down are “unprocessed and uncalibrated,” Major explains. They’re oddly shaped and the colors might be off or faded. Major will crop them; map them onto a sphere; or combine images taken at different points in time and tweak them in Lightroom and Photoshop using preset filters he’s created. He might highlight contrasts, boost saturation or clean up stray pixels, but his goal is to “enhance what's there while making it look as natural as possible.”

Others take a different approach, turning the red spot blue or creating art inspired by the raw images. Sometimes, Major will build on work done by fellow citizen scientists, like Eichstädt.

7-13-17 Jupiter Red Spot Blue Dave Johnson wrote in his upload description that "color manipulation resulted in a striking outcome!" Dave Johnson

7-13-17 Jupiter Moira Hill A variety of modifications on the original "Closehover" image using technical and artistic techniques. Moira Hill

“I love sharing these images and love being associated with the mission,” Major says. He credits his education on processing the images to tutorials created by Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society and to NASA itself: “No one from NASA ever came to me and said you can't do that. If anything they wanted to help me do it.

“These missions belong to all of us. NASA is a publicly funded institution,” he adds. “They want us to be excited because we all made it happen.”