Discover why we’re using NASA’s Juno spacecraft to look deep into the giant planet’s iconic red spot in search of answers to these questions, which have baffled astronomers for generations.
This animation takes the viewer on a simulated flight into, and then out of, Jupiter’s upper atmosphere at the location of the Great Red Spot. It was created by combining an image from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft with a computer-generated animation.
The perspective begins about 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) above the cloud tops of the planet’s southern hemisphere. The bar at far left indicates altitude during the quick descent; a second gauge next to that depicts the dramatic increase in temperature that occurs as the perspective dives deeper down. The clouds turn crimson as the perspective passes through the Great Red Spot. Finally, the view ascends out of the spot.
How a NASA Scientist Looks in the Depths of the Great Red Spot to Find Water on Jupiter
For centuries, scientists have worked to understand the makeup of Jupiter. It’s no wonder: this mysterious planet is the biggest one in our solar system by far, and chemically, the closest relative to the Sun. Understanding Jupiter is key to learning more about how our solar system formed, and even about how other solar systems develop.
But one critical question has bedeviled astronomers for generations: Is there water deep in Jupiter’s atmosphere, and if so, how much?
Gordon L. Bjoraker, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, reported in a recent paper in the Astronomical Journal that he and his team have brought the Jovian research community closer to the answer.
By looking from ground-based telescopes at wavelengths sensitive to thermal radiation leaking from the depths of Jupiter’s persistent storm, the Great Red Spot, they detected the chemical signatures of water above the planet’s deepest clouds. The pressure of the water, the researchers concluded, combined with their measurements of another oxygen-bearing gas, carbon monoxide, imply that Jupiter has 2 to 9 times more oxygen than the Sun. This finding supports theoretical and computer-simulation models that have predicted abundant water (H2O) on Jupiter made of oxygen (O) tied up with molecular hydrogen (H2).
The revelation was stirring given that the team’s experiment could have easily failed. The Great Red Spot is full of dense clouds, which makes it hard for electromagnetic energy to escape and teach astronomers anything about the chemistry within.
“It turns out they’re not so thick that they block our ability to see deeply,” said Bjoraker. “That’s been a pleasant surprise.”
New spectroscopic technology and sheer curiosity gave the team a boost in peering deep inside Jupiter, which has an atmosphere thousands of miles deep, Bjoraker said: “We thought, well, let’s just see what’s out there.”
The data Bjoraker and his team collected will supplement the information NASA’s Juno spacecraft is gathering as it circles the planet from north to south once every 53 days.
Among other things, Juno is looking for water with its own infrared spectrometer and with a microwave radiometer that can probe deeper than anyone has seen — to 100 bars, or 100 times the atmospheric pressure at Earth’s surface. (Altitude on Jupiter is measured in bars, which represent atmospheric pressure, since the planet does not have a surface, like Earth, from which to measure elevation.)
If Juno returns similar water findings, thereby backing Bjoraker’s ground-based technique, it could open a new window into solving the water problem, said Goddard’s Amy Simon, a planetary atmospheres expert.
“If it works, then maybe we can apply it elsewhere, like Saturn, Uranus or Neptune, where we don’t have a Juno,” she said.
Juno is the latest spacecraft tasked with finding water, likely in gas form, on this giant gaseous planet.
Water is a significant and abundant molecule in our solar system. It spawned life on Earth and now lubricates many of its most essential processes, including weather. It’s a critical factor in Jupiter’s turbulent weather, too, and in determining whether the planet has a core made of rock and ice.
Jupiter is thought to be the first planet to have formed by siphoning the elements left over from the formation of the Sun as our star coalesced from an amorphous nebula into the fiery ball of gases we see today. A widely accepted theory until several decades ago was that Jupiter was identical in composition to the Sun; a ball of hydrogen with a hint of helium — all gas, no core.
But evidence is mounting that Jupiter has a core, possibly 10 times Earth’s mass. Spacecraft that previously visited the planet found chemical evidence that it formed a core of rock and water ice before it mixed with gases from the solar nebula to make its atmosphere. The way Jupiter’s gravity tugs on Juno also supports this theory. There’s even lightning and thunder on the planet, phenomena fueled by moisture.
“The moons that orbit Jupiter are mostly water ice, so the whole neighborhood has plenty of water,” said Bjoraker. “Why wouldn’t the planet — which is this huge gravity well, where everything falls into it — be water rich, too?”
The water question has stumped planetary scientists; virtually every time evidence of H2O materializes, something happens to put them off the scent. A favorite example among Jupiter experts is NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which dropped a probe into the atmosphere in 1995 that wound up in an unusually dry region. “It’s like sending a probe to Earth, landing in the Mojave Desert, and concluding the Earth is dry,” pointed out Bjoraker.
In their search for water, Bjoraker and his team used radiation data collected from the summit of Maunakea in Hawaii in 2017. They relied on the most sensitive infrared telescope on Earth at the W.M. Keck Observatory, and also on a new instrument that can detect a wider range of gases at the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility.
The idea was to analyze the light energy emitted through Jupiter’s clouds in order to identify the altitudes of its cloud layers. This would help the scientists determine temperature and other conditions that influence the types of gases that can survive in those regions.
Planetary atmosphere experts expect that there are three cloud layers on Jupiter: a lower layer made of water ice and liquid water, a middle one made of ammonia and sulfur, and an upper layer made of ammonia.
To confirm this through ground-based observations, Bjoraker’s team looked at wavelengths in the infrared range of light where most gases don’t absorb heat, allowing chemical signatures to leak out. Specifically, they analyzed the absorption patterns of a form of methane gas. Because Jupiter is too warm for methane to freeze, its abundance should not change from one place to another on the planet.
“If you see that the strength of methane lines vary from inside to outside of the Great Red Spot, it’s not because there’s more methane here than there,” said Bjoraker, “it’s because there are thicker, deep clouds that are blocking the radiation in the Great Red Spot.”
Bjoraker’s team found evidence for the three cloud layers in the Great Red Spot, supporting earlier models. The deepest cloud layer is at 5 bars, the team concluded, right where the temperature reaches the freezing point for water, said Bjoraker, “so I say that we very likely found a water cloud.” The location of the water cloud, plus the amount of carbon monoxide that the researchers identified on Jupiter, confirms that Jupiter is rich in oxygen and, thus, water.
Bjoraker’s technique now needs to be tested on other parts of Jupiter to get a full picture of global water abundance, and his data squared with Juno’s findings.
“Jupiter’s water abundance will tell us a lot about how the giant planet formed, but only if we can figure out how much water there is in the entire planet,” said Steven M. Levin, a Juno project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
Juno’s latest flyby of Jupiter captures two massive storms
This image of Jupiter’s turbulent southern hemisphere was captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it performed its most recent close flyby of the gas giant planet on Dec. 21, 2018.
This new perspective captures the notable Great Red Spot, as well as a massive storm called Oval BA. The storm reached its current size when three smaller spots collided and merged in the year 2000. The Great Red Spot, which is about twice as wide as Oval BA, may have formed from the same process centuries ago.
Juno took the three images used to produce this color-enhanced view on Dec. 21, between 9:32 a.m. PST (12:32 p.m. EST) and 9:42 a.m. PST (12:42 p.m. EST). At the time the images were taken, the spacecraft was between approximately 23,800 miles (38,300 kilometers) to 34,500 miles (55,500 kilometers) from the planet’s cloud tops above southern latitudes spanning 49.15 to 59.59 degrees.
Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran created this image using data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam imager.
A multitude of magnificent, swirling clouds in Jupiter’s dynamic North North Temperate Belt is captured in this image from NASA’s Juno spacecraft.
Appearing in the scene are several bright-white “pop-up” clouds as well as an anticyclonic storm, known as a white oval.
This color-enhanced image was taken at 1:58 p.m. PDT on Oct. 29, 2018 (4:58 p.m. EDT) as the spacecraft performed its 16th close flyby of Jupiter. At the time, Juno was about 4,400 miles (7,000 kilometers) from the planet’s cloud tops, at a latitude of approximately 40 degrees north.
Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran created this image using data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam imager.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstad/Sean Doran
Juno solves 39-year old mystery of Jupiter lightning
Ever since NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft flew past Jupiter in March, 1979, scientists have wondered about the origin of Jupiter’s lightning. That encounter confirmed the existence of Jovian lightning, which had been theorized for centuries. But when the venerable explorer hurtled by, the data showed that the lightning-associated radio signals didn’t match the details of the radio signals produced by lightning here at Earth.
In a new paper published in Nature today, scientists from NASA’s Juno mission describe the ways in which lightning on Jupiter is actually analogous to Earth’s lightning. Although, in some ways, the two types of lightning are polar opposites.
“No matter what planet you’re on, lightning bolts act like radio transmitters — sending out radio waves when they flash across a sky,” said Shannon Brown of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a Juno scientist and lead author of the paper. “But until Juno, all the lightning signals recorded by spacecraft [Voyagers 1 and 2, Galileo, Cassini] were limited to either visual detections or from the kilohertz range of the radio spectrum, despite a search for signals in the megahertz range. Many theories were offered up to explain it, but no one theory could ever get traction as the answer.”
Enter Juno, which has been orbiting Jupiter since July 4, 2016. Among its suite of highly sensitive instruments is the Microwave Radiometer Instrument (MWR), which records emissions from the gas giant across a wide spectrum of frequencies.
“In the data from our first eight flybys, Juno’s MWR detected 377 lightning discharges,” said Brown. “They were recorded in the megahertz as well as gigahertz range, which is what you can find with terrestrial lightning emissions. We think the reason we are the only ones who can see it is because Juno is flying closer to the lighting than ever before, and we are searching at a radio frequency that passes easily through Jupiter’s ionosphere.”
While the revelation showed how Jupiter lightning is similar to Earth’s, the new paper also notes that where these lightning bolts flash on each planet is actually quite different.
“Jupiter lightning distribution is inside out relative to Earth,” said Brown. “There is a lot of activity near Jupiter’s poles but none near the equator. You can ask anybody who lives in the tropics — this doesn’t hold true for our planet.”
Why do lightning bolts congregate near the equator on Earth and near the poles on Jupiter? Follow the heat.
Earth’s derives the vast majority of its heat externally from solar radiation, courtesy of our Sun. Because our equator bears the brunt of this sunshine, warm moist air rises (through convection) more freely there, which fuels towering thunderstorms that produce lightning.
Jupiter’s orbit is five times farther from the Sun than Earth’s orbit, which means that the giant planet receives 25 times less sunlight than Earth. But even though Jupiter’s atmosphere derives the majority of its heat from within the planet itself, this doesn’t render the Sun’s rays irrelevant. They do provide some warmth, heating up Jupiter’s equator more than the poles — just as they heat up Earth. Scientists believe that this heating at Jupiter’s equator is just enough to create stability in the upper atmosphere, inhibiting the rise of warm air from within. The poles, which do not have this upper-level warmth and therefore no atmospheric stability, allow warm gases from Jupiter’s interior to rise, driving convection and therefore creating the ingredients for lightning.
“These findings could help to improve our understanding of the composition, circulation and energy flows on Jupiter,” said Brown. But another question looms, she said. “Even though we see lightning near both poles, why is it mostly recorded at Jupiter’s north pole?”
In a second Juno lightning paper published today in Nature Astronomy, Ivana Kolmašová of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague, and colleagues, present the largest database of lightning-generated low-frequency radio emissions around Jupiter (whistlers) to date. The data set of more than 1,600 signals, collected by Juno’s Waves instrument, is almost 10 times the number recorded by Voyager 1. Juno detected peak rates of four lightning strikes per second (similar to the rates observed in thunderstorms on Earth) which is six times higher than the peak values detected by Voyager 1.
“These discoveries could only happen with Juno,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio. “Our unique orbit allows our spacecraft to fly closer to Jupiter than any other spacecraft in history, so the signal strength of what the planet is radiating out is a thousand times stronger. Also, our microwave and plasma wave instruments are state-of-the-art, allowing us to pick out even weak lightning signals from the cacophony of radio emissions from Jupiter. “
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Microwave Radiometer instrument (MWR) was built by JPL. The Juno Waves instrument was provided by the University of Iowa. Lockheed Martin Space, Denver, built the spacecraft.