Jupiter is nothing like scientists expected
Heat radiating from cyclones on Jupiter's South Pole. Credit: NASA / SWRI / JPL / ASI / INAF / IAPS
New data from NASA's Juno spacecraft show patterns of cyclones, a core that behaves like a solid, and a jet stream that, unlike on Earth, extends deep into the planet.
Why it matters: Despite all of the beautiful images of Jupiter's Great Red Spot nestled among its iconic bands, little is known about what is happening in the planet's interior. The structure could hint at the formation of the solar system's largest and first planet — and of Earth's later origins.
"In almost every field, our ideas of what Jupiter was like are largely incorrect."— Scott Bolton, Principal Investigator of NASA's Juno mission
Key findings from the four studies published in Nature today:
- The planet's gravitational field varies in the northern and southern hemispheres. That's surprising because the fast-rotating gas planet was expected to generate a uniform gravitational effect.
- The strange field arises because the winds at the surface extend deep — about 3,000 kilometers — into the planet, another team reported. Jupiter's bands therefore run deep. The source of the winds is unknown.
- Jupiter's gaseous core — mostly made of helium and hydrogen — seems to rotate as a solid body.
- Unlike Saturn's single storms, there are patterned clusters of cyclones at Jupiter's poles. How they form and remain stable is a puzzle.
What's next: Two-thirds of Juno's mission remains. One outstanding question is how much oxygen there is in Jupiter in the form of water. "Understanding the distribution of oxygen in the early solar system, will help us understand the origin of oceans and therefore life itself," says Bolton.