We Just Learned A Lot Of Unexpected Things About Jupiter

NASA / JPL / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Justin Cowart

Jonathan O`Callaghan 25 May 2017, 19:00

Forget everything you knew about gas giants, because based on the latest results from the Juno mission, we were wrong. We were so wrong.

Well, that’s a bit extreme. But NASA's Juno spacecraft is upending a lot of our models of the gas giant Jupiter, including what we thought it was like on the inside, the strength of its magnetic field, and what its poles look like. And that has implications for our Solar System and others, too.

Juno has been in orbit around Jupiter since July 4, 2016, completing an orbit every 53.5 days. In Science today, the first batch of results from Juno have been released, in this and this paper, after we got a sneak peak earlier this month.

“These first results are sort of telling us that some of our ideas are wrong and need to be corrected,” Scott Bolton, the principle investigator for the Juno mission, said in a Science podcast.

How so? Well, let’s take the first paper, on which Bolton is the lead author. On August 27, 2016, Juno dived over the poles of Jupiter just 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) from the cloud tops, the first spacecraft ever to observe this region. On the rest of the planet, storms are divided into iconic bands. At the poles, though, it looks like a hodgepodge of meteor craters.

The north and south poles of Jupiter. Weird, huh? J Connerney et al / Science

Except these aren’t craters, but rather raging cyclones. This is the first time we’ve seen the poles, and they’re completely unlike anything we’ve seen before. On fellow gas giant Saturn, for example, its north pole is dominated by a large hexagonal storm. Jupiter looks much more weird.

“The surface patterns found near the poles, are highly different from what was expected,” John Leif Jørgensen from the Technical University of Denmark, and a co-investigator on Juno’s Magnetometer (MAG) instrument, told IFLScience. “The distribution [of vortices] came as a surprise.”

Rather interestingly, Juno also spotted a massive cyclone rising above the cloud tops of Jupiter. Spanning 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles), the huge cloud was seen at the boundary between night and day, known as the terminator. It was sticking up like a tornado, casting a shadow over the clouds, which was a huge surprise to the scientists.

Then we’ve got Jupiter’s rather crazy magnetic field. Juno has been using its magnetometer to measure the strength of the magnetic field and map it across the planet. The team found it reached up to 7.766 Gauss in places, which is twice as strong as models predicted and about 10 times the strength of our own magnetic field.

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