NASA spacecraft spots Earth-sized cyclones on Jupiter

The initial set of data released by NASA’s Juno probe reveal that Jupiter’s famous belts are stranger and more turbulent than previously thought.

Juno is being kept in fairly wide orbit around Jupiter’s poles, but every 53 days as it switches between north and south, it swoops in to take a closer look at the rest of the giant planet along the way.

The Juno probe continued its close encounter with Jupiter, revealing large cyclones near Jupiter’s poles and how the planet’s strong auroras are different from Earth’s northern and southern lights. The image revealed a cyclone on the Jupiter that’s about 600 miles in diameter.

“We’re questioning whether this is a dynamic system, and are we seeing just one stage, and over the next year, we’re going to watch it disappear, or is this a stable configuration and these storms are circulating around one another?” said Bolton.

Some of the most lovely data obtained during the flybys are images captured by the spacecraft’s JunoCam, which showed massive storm systems on the planet, and allow scientists to understand the planet’s atmosphere, climate, and its north and south poles. But “it doesn’t look like its rotating like a solid body”, Bolton said. The principal investigator is Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

The data suggest ammonia clouds over the planet are quite variable and continue to increase up to a few hundred miles or kilometres – as far as the Juno’s instruments can observe.

The mission derives its name from Roman goddess Juno, who was able to look through the clouds to see her frequently misbehaving husband Jupiter, the king of the gods, who was hiding within.

Juno will stay in orbit until February 2018, when NASA will purposefully plummet the spacecraft into Jupiter. We knew that Jupiter’s magnetic field is very strong, but the observations show that it’s much stronger than astronomic models predicted – and highly irregular in shape.

During Juno’s next flyby on July 11, the spacecraft will pass directly over the planet’s Great Red Spot, a massive storm south of the equator that has existed for centuries. Juno has also detected an overwhelming abundance of ammonia deep down in the atmosphere, and a surprisingly strong magnetic field in places – roughly 10 times greater than Earth’s. “Every flyby we execute gets us closer to determining where and how Jupiter’s dynamo works”, said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator and the lead for the mission’s magnetic field investigation at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. As Juno gets closer to Jupiter’s cloud layer, the field variance goes up-NASA describes it as “lumpy”.

What you’re seeing is actually a composite of several different photos taken at different times so that the entirety of the south pole was illuminated by daylight.

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