Clusters of cyclones encircle Jupiter’s poles, researchers discover.
Clusters of cyclones encircle Jupiter’s poles, researchers discover.

NASA’s ‘curve ball’ Jupiter discovery

THE poles of Jupiter are blanketed by geometric clusters of cyclones and its atmosphere is deeper than scientists thought.

The planet's tempestuous, gassy atmosphere stretches some 3000 kilometres deep and comprises a hundredth of the planet's mass, studies based on observations by NASA's Juno spacecraft have revealed.

The measurements shed the first light on what goes on beneath the surface of the largest planet in the Solar System.

"Galileo viewed the stripes on Jupiter more than 400 years ago. Until now, we only had a superficial understanding of them," said Yohai Kaspi from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, an author of one of four studies published in Nature.

"Infra-red images obtained from above each pole by the Juno spacecraft during its first five orbits reveal persistent polygonal patterns of large cyclones," researchers wrote.

These cyclones far exceed a category five cyclone in strength, reaching up to 350km/h.

"The configuration of the cyclones is without precedent on other planets (including Saturn's polar hexagonal features)," they wrote.

"The manner in which the cyclones persist without merging and the process by which they evolve to their current configuration are unknown."

This composite image, derived from data collected by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument aboard NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, shows the central cyclone at the planet’s north pole and the eight cyclones that encircle it.
This composite image, derived from data collected by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument aboard NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, shows the central cyclone at the planet’s north pole and the eight cyclones that encircle it.

Up to a depth of about 3000km, Jupiter comprises a psychedelic swirl of cloud bands and jet streams blown by powerful winds, in opposite directions and at different speeds.

But underneath, the planet's liquid core of hydrogen and helium rotates uniformly, behaving almost like a solid body, researchers found.

"The result is a surprise because this indicates that the atmosphere of Jupiter is massive and extends much deeper than we previously expected," Mr Kaspi told AFP.

Earth's atmosphere, by comparison, holds less than a millionth of the planet's total mass.

The findings were the result of unparalleled measurements of Jupiter's gravity field by Juno, in orbit around the closest gas giant to Earth since July 2016.

Previously we didn't know whether a gaseous planet like Jupiter rotates with zones and belts all the way to the centre, or whether the atmospheric patterns were skin-deep.

"These astonishing science results are yet another example of Jupiter's curve balls, and a testimony to the value of exploring the unknown from a new perspective with next-generation instruments," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.


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