Discover the Color of Jupiter: Photos, Explanation, and More!

Written by Drew Wood
Published: May 24, 2023
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Jupiter is the most gigantic planet in our solar system, so big that 1,300 Earths could fit inside it! Along with Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, it is one of four giant planets that patrol the outer reaches of the Sun’s neighborhood. Scientists have learned a ton about this planet in the past decades. Even though it can be seen with the naked eye, and its disk and four of its moons can be made out with a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope, it has really been the various spacecraft that have studied it that have taught us much of what we know about it. Have you ever noticed, though, that Jupiter looks all different colors in different photos? Sometimes this is done for scientific reasons, to highlight different features of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Often, though, it seems like someone went crazy with their Photoshop and just wanted to create a beautiful work of art that might not look anything like the real planet if you saw it with your own eyes. So what is the color of Jupiter anyway? And what else should we know about the biggest planet in the solar system? Let us help you find the answers to those questions.

Key Points

  • Ancient people thought Jupiter was a “wandering star.”
  • You can easily repeat Galileo’s observations of Jupiter and four of its moons with binoculars or a small telescope.
  • Numerous space probes to Jupiter since the 1970s have expanded our knowledge of the planet.
  • The real colors of Jupiter are pale shades of brown, orange, red, and white.
  • Jupiter has a rocky core surrounded by layers of metallic hydrogen, liquid hydrogen and helium, and an atmosphere that includes ammonia and water.
  • The Great Red Spot is a 10,000-mile diameter hurricane that has been going on for 350 years or more.
  • Jupiter performs the useful function of destroying asteroids and comets that wander into its immense gravitational field, reducing the number of them that reach Earth.
Jupiter with Ganymede

This is a false-color composite image of Jupiter and its largest moon, Ganymede. Pretty, but not at all what Jupiter actually looks like.

©Claudio Caridi/Shutterstock.com

Ancient Observations of Jupiter

One of the first historical records we have of anyone observing Jupiter comes from ancient Babylon, where mystic astronomers mentioned it as early as the 7th century BCE. Ancient observers called the planets “wandering stars” because they appear to move in one direction across the sky and then “reverse course” to go back in another direction. This effect has to do with the fact that the Earth has a smaller orbit than the outer planets, so they appear to reverse direction as we catch up to them and pass them. Jupiter is named after the Roman chief god, which is an appropriate name for the largest of all the planets.

Wall relief from Mesopotamia

Ancient people were intensely interested in the stars and knew Jupiter as a “wandering star.”

©Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock.com

What Will You See if You Observe Jupiter?

Galileo observed Jupiter and four of its moons through a telescope – something you can do today with a small and inexpensive telescope or pair of binoculars. You can’t really see the color of Jupiter very well, though. It will look like a bright white round disk, clearly not a star, and you’ll see one to four little points of light on either side of it. If you watch it on successive nights you’ll see some of those points getting further away from the planet and others moving closer to it and disappearing behind it, only to reemerge on the other side. We now know that Jupiter has anywhere from 80 to 95 moons but it’s hard to say exactly because many of them are quite small and are part of a thin ring system around the planet. The four you’ll be able to see are named Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

Photo lower right frame silhouette of a person with their hair in a top knot. The person’s right hand is clutching a telescope also silhouette, against a star filled sky

A small telescope or binoculars are enough to see Jupiter as a disk with its four largest moons as pinpoints of light.

©Allexxandar/Shutterstock.com

Space Missions to Jupiter

NASA and the European Space Agency are the only organizations that have sent probes to Jupiter. And they’ve sent a lot. The first were Pioneer 10 and 11 in 1972 and 1973. Voyager 1 and 2 took even better pictures in 1977 on a grand tour of the outer planets. These spacecraft have since left the solar system but continue to send back faint signals. In 1989 the Galileo program put an orbiter around the planet and dropped a probe into its atmosphere. Two spacecraft swung by Jupiter for a gravity assist while doing other missions: Ulysses in 1990 studied the solar wind, and Cassini in 1997 went on to its primary mission to study Saturn in 1997. The Juno orbiter was launched in 2011 and is planned to burn up in the planet’s atmosphere in 2025.

Jupiter, Io, and the Galileo space Probe with star field background. 3D computer-generated image.

This is a composite artistic rendering of the Galileo space probe studying Jupiter and its moon Io.

©Stephen Girimont/Shutterstock.com

What’s Inside Jupiter?

The Upper Atmosphere

The actual color of Jupiter with no monkeying around with the images is white, orange, brown, and red. These colors are the result of the elements that the outer atmosphere of the planet is made out of. The outer atmosphere is about 44 miles thick with three layers: a top layer of ammonia ice, a middle layer of ammonium hydrosulfide crystals, and a lower layer of water ice and vapor.

Full disk of planet Jupiter globe from space isolated on white background. View of Jupiter's Great Red Spot and turbulent southern hemisphere. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

This is what Jupiter would actually look like if you went there and saw it for yourself. After all the enhanced and false-color artistic images you’ve seen of it, would you be disappointed?

©Elena11/Shutterstock.com

Jupiter’s Ocean

Below this, Jupiter is made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium. This is the stuff stars are made of. If Jupiter had more mass, it would have turned into a star and we would be living in a binary star system. We think of hydrogen and helium as gases, but on Jupiter, the tremendous pressure makes them go into a liquid state, making them into the largest ocean in the Solar System. Below this ocean, the pressure is so great that hydrogen goes into a metallic state. There’s a layer of metallic hydrogen about 25,000 miles thick below the liquid ocean and above the rocky core of the planet. This layer is a good conductor of electricity and helps produce the planet’s powerful magnetic field.

Jupiter inner structure. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

Jupiter has a rocky core surrounded by a deep layer of metallic hydrogen. Around this is an ocean of liquid hydrogen and helium and finally, an atmosphere that includes ammonia and water.

©Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock.com

Jupiter’s Core

Below this, astronomers think the planet has a solid core made of rock, metal, and ice that may be about 10-20 times larger than the Earth. The deepest part of the core is under tremendous pressure: 650 million pounds per square inch! Compare that to the deepest point of the ocean on Earth, the Mariana Trench, where the pressure is only 8 pounds per square inch. At Jupiter’s pressures, not only could you make diamonds from carbon, but you could make oceans of liquid metallic diamonds, if you can imagine such a thing! It’s also extremely hot at Jupiter’s core, between 36,000-43,000°F. For comparison, the temperature at the surface of the Sun is 10,340°F. The inner core of the Earth is “only” 9,392°F. That’s starting to sound positively cool, isn’t it? Jupiter is actually still in the process of forming. Its gravity is continuing to compress material down into the core, causing the planet to contract. This is thought to be the source of its heat.

What is the Great Red Spot?

The Great Red Spot is an enormous storm that has been raging across the southern hemisphere of Jupiter for at least 350 years. The wind speed in the storm is estimated at 263 mph. The fastest wind speed of any hurricane on Earth was measured in 2015 when Hurricane Patricia off the Pacific coast of Mexico reached 215 mph. Fortunately, it weakened greatly before making landfall but still did tremendous damage. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is about 10,000 miles across, which is about 125% the diameter of the Earth. So just imagine the most intense hurricane that has ever happened on our planet, happening all over our planet, all at once! That’s the Great Red Spot.

jupiter

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a hurricane bigger than Earth that has been going on for at least 350 years.

©joshimerbin/Shutterstock.com

How is Jupiter Like a Vacuum Cleaner?

The giant outer planets of our Solar System are not there just to look like oversized Christmas tree ornaments. They actually serve a super practical purpose that helps sustain life on Earth. Here’s how. Our solar system contains a lot of leftover rubble that has never consolidated into planets. Rocky asteroids and icy comets periodically fly through the solar system and pose an existential threat to life on Earth. However, the gravity of Jupiter and the other outer planets is so huge they act like “vacuum cleaners” sucking in space debris that wanders into their gravitational fields. Depending on their trajectories and speeds, asteroids might settle into orbits around the giant planets as additional moons, or they may get pulled into their atmospheres and burned up.

One of the most exciting events ever observed in the Solar System took place in 1994 when a comet named Shoemaker Levy 9 was captured by Jupiter’s gravity and destroyed. As it neared the planet it broke up into over 20 fragments that collided with the back side of the planet, creating ginormous explosions that went far out into space and were observed in real-time by astronomers. The largest piece made a 48,000 megaton explosion, 1,000 times bigger than the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated by humanity. As Jupiter rotated, a trail of dark spots was visible across the planet’s southern hemisphere, each of which was larger than Earth!

Impact site of a nickel-iron meteorite that fell on earth 49,000 years ago.

This is Barringer Meteor Crater, Arizona. Jupiter captures some of the meteors and comets in the outer Solar System so that impacts like this on Earth are rare.

©Grindstone Media Group/Shutterstock.com

What Difference Does the Color of Jupiter Make?

All of this is terribly interesting to anyone who loves space and dreams of space travel. All the conflicting artistic images of this incredible planet can make us curious about what we would actually see if we went there. But the question points out an issue that really does affect all of us. With so many enhanced, photoshopped, or AI-generated images online, how can we separate reality from fiction? Can we even trust our own eyes anymore, when the images we are looking at can seem so realistic, but be utterly fictional? And does reality seem like a pale version of the false images we see, so that what we buy on the internet, the vacations we go on, or even the people we meet and date seem not as great in reality as they appear online? It all goes to show that we need to do our homework, look at more than one source, and ask the right questions to separate fact from fiction.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © joshimerbin/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Drew Wood is a writer at A-Z Animals focusing on mammals, geography, and world cultures. Drew has worked in research and writing for over 20 years and holds a Masters in Foreign Affairs (1992) and a Doctorate in Religion (2009). A resident of Nebraska, Drew enjoys Brazilian jiu-jitsu, movies, and being an emotional support human to four dogs.

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