Ten months after its nerve-wracking arrival at Jupiter, NASA’s Juno mission has started to deliver – forcing scientists to reevaluate what they thought they knew about the giant planet.
The first findings from Juno, published in US-based Science magazine indicate that many aspects of Jupiter have defied expectation – including the strength of its magnetic field, the shape of its core, the distribution of ammonia gas and the weather at its poles. It certainly makes this an exciting time to be a Jupiter scientist.
Juno arrived at Jupiter in July last year and began a long, looping first orbit that took it far out from the planet before zipping back in for its first close-up at perijove – on 27 August. (Perijove is the closest point at which an object or spacecraft passes Jupiter.)
It is this fleeting meeting that the new studies are based on. Today despite initial problems with Juno’s engine and spacecraft software, the mission has settled into a regular pattern of close perijoves every 53.5 days – the sixth such flyby happened on 19 May, the seventh will be on 11 July.
Mysteries in the deep
One of Juno’s key strengths is its ability to peer through the overlying shroud of clouds to study the gases below, such as the cloud-forming substance ammonia. Flows of ammonia help form Jupiter’s distinctive features. The gas was expected to be well-mixed, or drenched, below the topmost clouds. That idea has been turned on its head – the ammonia concentration is much less than expected.
Intriguingly much of the ammonia is concentrated into an equatorial plume, rising from the depths of Jupiter to the cloud-tops due to some powerful upwelling force. Scientists are likening this to Earth’s Hadley cell, with plumes dredging ammonia up from hundreds of miles below.
We’ve known that ammonia is enhanced at Jupiter’s equator for some time, but we never knew how deep this column went. However, it’s important to remember that this is only one location on Jupiter, and that Earth-based infrared observations suggest that the plume may not be this strong elsewhere around Jupiter’s equator, but could be patchy. Only with more perijoves will we begin to understand the strange dynamics of Jupiter’s tropics.
Jupiter seen by Juno (NASA)
We’ve never been able to see this deep before, so even the first observations from Juno’s microwave instrument provide a treasure trove of new insights. These show that the banded structure that we see at the surface is really just the tip of the iceberg – Jupiter exhibits banding all the way down to 217 miles. This is much deeper than what we’ve generally thought of as Jupiter’s “weather layer” in the upper few dozens of miles. What’s more, that structure isn’t the same all the way down – it varies with depth, indicating a large, complex circulation pattern.
Gravity and magnetic fields
The surprises didn’t stop here. Juno can probe even deeper into the planet by monitoring small tweaks to the spacecraft’s orbit by the gravity field of Jupiter’s interior. Ultimately, these will be used to assess Jupiter’s core, although that cannot be done from a single perijove pass. Most scientists believe that the planet has a dense core made up of around 10 Earth masses of heavy elements and occupying a small fraction of the radius. But the new measurements are inconsistent with any previous model – possibly hinting at a “fluffy” core dispersed out to half of Jupiter’s radius.
Indeed, Jupiter’s interior appears to be anything but uniform. We have to remember that scientists have spent years developing models of the interior of Jupiter based on sparse data taken from great distances – Juno is now testing these models to the extreme because it is flying so close.
Infrared image showing Jupiter’s aurora (blue) and internal glow (red) (NASA)
Jupiter has the most intense planetary magnetic field in the solar system, causing a pile-up where the solar wind is slowed down (known as the “bow shock”). Juno first passed through this region and into the Jovian magnetosphere on 24 June last year. At its closest approach the strength of Jupiter’s magnetic field was twice as strong as any model had predicted and much more irregular.
That’s important, because it suggests that the magnetic field could be generated at shallower depths than expected, above the “metallic hydrogen” layer that is thought to exist at very high pressures. If proven this has substantial implications for studies of magnetic fields at all of the giant planets. Perhaps the Cassini mission will be able to confirm whether this is the case as it makes its final measurements of Saturn’s magnetic field before it crashes into the planet in September.
Chaos at the poles
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see Jupiter through a telescope, you’ll be familiar with the organised, striped structure of whiter zones and dark brown belts.
These colourful bands are bordered by powerful jet streams whizzing east and west around the planet. On Saturn this organised, banded structure persists all the way to the poles, with one jet showing a strange hexagonal wave pattern encircling a hurricane-like polar cyclone.
Poles apart: it all looks calm but Juno’s shots of Jupiter reveal a more turbulent surface than scientists expected (J.E.P. Connerney et al)
But Jupiter’s poles are different. Gone is the organised structure of jets. There’s no evidence for hexagons or anything like it. And instead of one cyclone, we see multitudes, surrounded by a whole host of chaotic and turbulent features.
With the ability to see structures as small as 31 miles, Juno’s camera has revealed numerous bright cyclones of a variety of appearances – some appear sharp, some have clear spirals, some are fluffy and diffuse, and the largest is nearly 900 miles.
That’s about the same distance between London and Majorca. These bright storms sit on top of dark clouds, giving the appearance of “floating” on a dark sea, and it will be some time before we understand the lifetimes and motions of these storms.
You might imagine that faced with throwing out models that have taken careers to develop, scientists might be a little glum. But the exact opposite is true.
A mission like Juno, accessing regions that no robotic spacecraft has ever probed before, is designed to test the models to the extreme. If they break then the search to find the missing pieces of the puzzle will provide deeper insights into the physics of the Jovian system. All these surprises have come from just the first perijove encounter, and I’m sure there are plenty more revelations to come.
Leigh Fletcher is a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leicester. This article was originally published on The Conversation.