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Jupiter was likely the first planet to take shape in our solar system. It may have spent millions and millions of years wandering around the system and destroyed early generations of planets before settling into a peaceful orbit between Mars and Saturn. And much, much later, observations of Jupiter helped Galileo figure out that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. To understand how Jupiter works would be to better understand the origins of our home in the cosmos.
For the last year and a half, reports The Atlantic via Nature, the NASA spacecraft Juno has been circling Jupiter and collecting reams of data. Juno spends most of its time a good distance away from Jupiter, safe from the worst of the planet’s intense radiation belts. But once every orbit, the spacecraft comes swooping toward Jupiter and directs its instruments—protected by 400 pounds of titanium—toward the perpetually stormy clouds that cover its surface. Then it zooms back out. The picture above of Jupiter’s south pole is a mosaic of images taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. It shows the heat coming out from the planet through the clouds: yellow indicates the presence of thinner clouds and dark red the thicker ones.
One of those instruments, a camera called JunoCam, has produced dozens of mesmerizing photographs of Jupiter in extraordinary detail. The planet’s clouds, with their intricate eddies and swirls, look like something out of Van Gogh’s Starry Night (which was actually mankinds first image of the Andromeda Galaxy).
Juno’s other instruments are designed to look deeper, beyond the beauty on the surface and into the darkness below. And the more they look, the more scientists learn that Jupiter is weirder than anyone thought.
“We’ve seen that a lot of our expectations were wrong,” says Scott Bolton, the principal investigator of the Juno mission and the director of space science and engineering at the Southwest Research Institute. “The real question that we’re after is, how did it form?” Bolton said. “And what does that tell us about how the rest of the solar system formed and how other solar systems form? How are planets really made?”
The Juno team’s first report of scientific results, released last May, shattered a number of predictions. The robust magnetic field that surrounds Jupiter, for example, is about twice as strong as models had predicted. Scientists had expected Jupiter to have either a dense core of heavy elements or no core at all, but Juno showed it’s probably something in the middle—a “fuzzy,” partially dissolved core—and much bigger than they anticipated.
Their newest report, released Wednesday and spread across several papers in the journal Nature, reveals even more surprises.
The winds at Jupiter’s surface, some of the most powerful in the solar system, influence the planet’s gravitational field, the latest observations show. This means that Jupiter’s signature, crisscrossing bands don’t just exist on the surface of the atmosphere. Jupiter’s wind flows actually extend 3,000 kilometers (about 1,860 miles) below the cloud tops, where the pressure is about 100,000 times that of the atmosphere at Earth’s surface.
Scientists now estimate Jupiter’s atmosphere makes up about 1 percent of the planet’s total mass. This may not seem like much, but consider that Jupiter is so big that more than 1,300 Earths could fit inside of it.
“None of the models predicted that it would go that deep,” Bolton said.
Below this depth, the data shows, Jupiter’s interior rotates as one solid body, a churning mass of liquid hydrogen and helium.
Other curious phenomena lie at Jupiter’s north and south poles. When Juno arrived at the planet, it revealed massive cyclones at the polar regions. Previously, “None of the models predicted that it would go that deep,” Bolton said. Below this depth, the data shows, Jupiter’s interior rotates as one solid body, a churning mass of liquid hydrogen and helium.
Other curious phenomena lie at Jupiter’s north and south poles. When Juno arrived at the planet, it revealed massive cyclones at the polar regions. Previously, scientists had seen a single, massive, hexagon-shaped storm brewing at one of Saturn’s poles, and expected to find something similar on Jupiter, since both are gas planets. But Jupiter’s polar storms have turned out to be completely different. There are multiple cyclones, and they’re arranged in a polygon shape. “Everybody’s scratching their heads,” says Fran Bagenal, a planetary space physicist at the University of Colorado who leads one of Juno’s science teams.
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