NASA spies fierce cyclone dance on Jupiter

An illustration depicting the U.S. space agency's Juno spacecraft in orbit above Jupiter's Great Red Spot. NASA  JPL-Caltech  Handout via REUTERS

NASA handout of an illustration depicting the U.S. space agency's Juno spacecraft in orbit above Jupiter's Gread Red Spot. Thomson Reuters

By studying data about Jupiter's gravitational field, Kaspi and his colleagues discovered that those outer jet streams extend 3,000 kilometres below the cloud level. This is significantly larger than previous estimates, and it has caused scientists to revise their picture of Jupiter's atmosphere as well as its inner layers.

Massive amounts of new data gathered by NASA's Juno spacecraft have drawn back the veils on Jupiter's cloudy surface, revealing unparalleled insights into the planet's mysterious depths and the continent-sized cyclones at its poles.

Kaspi, together with his Weizmann colleague Dr. Eli Galanti, had been preparing for this analysis even before Juno was launched almost seven years ago. By measuring the imbalance - changes in the planet's gravity field - their analytical tools would be able to calculate how deep the storms extend below the surface.

However, in 2013, while the craft was still en route to Jupiter, Kaspi calculated that since asymmetry exists between the winds in the north and the south, this should produce a measurable gravitational signal.

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A mosaic of infrared images from Jupiter's South Pole shows the persistent hurricanes. "The remarkable thing about this", said Galanti, "is that we were able to directly measure the signature of the flows themselves". The deeper the winds go, the larger the asymmetry.

Moreover, Kaspi and Galanti developed a method of determining not only the overall depth of the flow, but also precisely how those flows, hidden beneath Jupiter's clouds, change with depth.

This may not sound like a lot, but in comparison, Earth's atmosphere is less than a millionth of its total mass.

"We have never seen similar structures on other planets of our Solar System", says Alberto Adriani at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, the lead author on the paper describing the cyclones.

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This technique allowed Luciano Iess from the Sapienza Università di Roma in Italy and colleagues to measure Jupiter's gravitational field 100 times more accurately than before.

"This is really an unbelievable result, and future measurements by Juno will help us understand how the transition works between the weather layer and the rigid body below", Tristan Guillot, a Juno co-investigator from the Université Côte d'Azur, Nice, France, said in a NASA release.

But the research is far from over. New data gathered from the probe is helping astrophysicists understand the origins of its distinctive coloured bands and the behaviour of the huge cyclone systems that rage close to the planet's poles.

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In addition, Kaspi and Galanti are aiming at another iconic phenomenon - Jupiter's Great Red Spot. "This is important for understanding the nature and possible mechanisms driving these strong jet streams". But where these cyclones came from, and how long they've been raging above the planet's surface, is still a mystery, although Adriani suspects they've been there for a long time already.

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