Juno Shows Jupiter’s Amazing Storms In A New Light

This mosaic of Jupiter’s south pole combines images taken in infrared light during the Juno spacecraft’s 4th close pass of the planet in Feb. 2017 reveals multiple giant storms that seem to form a pentagonal figure. The images show the planet’s heat glow; yellow indicates thinner clouds, which allow more heat to escape from the interior, and red, where thicker clouds block the heat. NASA/SWRI/JPL/ASI/INAF/IAPS

These insane new images of Jupiter’s poles were captured by the Juno spacecraft’s Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper or JIRAM. JIRAM examines the planet in infrared light, so it can see deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere day or night, as far down as 30 to 45 miles (50 to 70 km). The camera is something like the thermal cameras firefighters use to locate people trapped in a house fire.

Because Juno’s orbit takes it over the planet’s poles every couple months, we’re getting our first clear views of the planet’s polar weather. From Earth, it’s impossible to view the polar regions in much detail because Jupiter’s axis is tilted only 3°. We can’t look over the top or under the bottom the way Juno can.

“Each one of the northern cyclones is almost as wide as the distance between Naples, Italy and New York City (~4,400 miles) — and the southern ones are even larger than that,” said Alberto Adriani, Juno co-investigator. “They have very violent winds, reaching, in some cases, speeds as great as 220 mph (350 kph). Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, they are very close together and enduring. There is nothing else like it that we know of in the solar system.”

This Juno image shows the central cyclone at the planet’s north pole and the eight cyclones that encircle it. JIRAM collects data in infrared, and the colors in this composite represent radiant heat: the yellow (thinner) clouds are about 9°F (–13°C) in brightness temperature and the dark red (thickest) are around –181°F (–118°C). NASA/SWRI/JPL/ASI/INAF/IAPS

I’ll say. Jupiter’s polar whirlpools stand in stark contrast to the more familiar red-brown belts and white zones that stripe the planet at lower latitudes. In infrared, the north pole is dominated by a huge central cyclone surrounded by eight circumpolar cyclones with diameters ranging from 2,500 to 2,900 miles (4,000 to 4,600 km) across. Jupiter’s south pole also contains a central cyclone surrounded by five cyclones with diameters ranging from 3,500 to 4,300 miles (5,600 to 7,000 km) in diameter.

Despite rubbing elbows, each cyclone has remained distinct and separate over seven months of observations detailed in a series of papers published March 8 in the journal Nature. Why don’t they merge? At Saturn, each pole has only a single vortex.

Juno data also revealed that Jupiter’s atmospheric winds run deep and last longer than similar winds found on Earth. Astronomers have long been mystified as to how deep the planet’s belts and zones go. Gravity measurements collected by Juno during its close flybys of the planet have now provided an answer. The deeper the jets, the more mass they contain and the stronger the signal they show in the planet’s gravity field.

This computer-generated image is based on an infrared image of Jupiter’s north polar region made on February 2, 2017, by NASA’s Juno spacecraft and shows an interesting pattern of cyclones over Jupiter’s north pole: a central cyclone surrounded by eight circumpolar cyclones with diameters ranging from 2,500 to 2,900 miles (4,000 to 4,600 km) across. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

“Galileo viewed the stripes on Jupiter more than 400 years ago,” said Yohai Kaspi, another Juno co-investigator. “Now, following the Juno gravity measurements, we know how deep the jets extend and what their structure is beneath the visible clouds. It’s like going from a 2-D picture to a 3-D version in high definition.”

The result was a big surprise. The Jovian weather layer reaches from the cloud tops 1,900 miles (3,000 km) down or nearly the diameter of the moon. Given that Jupiter’s 86,880 miles (139,820 km) across, that’s a massive amount of clouds, storms and jet streams to move it all along. You gotta love all that weather.

Juno reveals the depth of Jupiter’s cloud belts

Another Juno result released today suggests that beneath the weather layer, the planet rotates nearly as a rigid body. Like a slow-spinning bowling ball wrapped in a whirl of weather. Scientists hope that future measurements from Juno will help us understand the divide.

10 Responses

  1. James Harmer

    In your second picture are you sure you’ve got the temperatures correct? According to Google -181F = -118C and why would anyone use Fahrenheit in this day and age anyway?

    1. astrobob

      Good catch, James. Thanks! I have no idea how 83 C got in there. Lots of us still use Fahrenheit — nearly everyone except the science community does in the U.S.

      1. James Harmer

        They used to use Fahrenheit over here in England when I was a kid, but it’s all centigrade now. Similarly with pounds and ounces and feel and inches, it’s now all metric. The only thing that’s still in Imperial measurements are road signs and speed limits.

        1. astrobob

          I certainly wish we’d switch to metric in the U.S. but the population would have to be dragged into doing it. It was attempted back in the 70s and flopped.

          1. No, Although supermarkets still display the price of goods sold by weight both in lbs & Kg, there’s no going back to a measure system based on irrational foundations. Education is the key and once it’s accepted and thought in schools from the beginning, it’s only a short few years until everyone understand how simple it is to understand and use 🙂

    2. Troy

      I think Fahrenheit is actually a bit better for civilian/non scientific use. The problem with centigrade is that the scale is too small. Fahrenheit works better because decades of degrees give a general sense of the weather, for example 50s tells that you will likely need a jacket. Centigrade between say 0 and 10 doesn’t really give a general idea on what you’ll experience. It could be winter coat or light coat.
      Temperature also doesn’t benefit from the metric systems base ten conversion system of prefixes.

      1. astrobob


        A thoughtful comment that makes ones pause. It’s true, Fahrenheit is definitely more people-friendly but I’ll still take meters over feet. Thanks for writing — good to hear from you again.

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