New science from Jupiter

NASA’s Juno spacecraft recently flew over the poles of Jupiter
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

When NASA’s Juno spacecraft recently flew over the poles of Jupiter, researchers were astonished, as if they had never seen a giant planet before.

The pictures were unlike anything in the history of planetary exploration.

Juno entered orbit on the 4th of July 2016 and later found Jupiter’s poles covered in nearly continent-sized storms that are densely clustered and rubbing together in a mind-blowing swirl.

“It’s like a whole new Jupiter,” says Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute. “The clouds were amazing.”

What’s striking about Jupiter’s polar storms is that there are actually multiple cyclones at each pole. So instead of having one polar vortex like Earth, Jupiter was observed to have as many as eight giant swirls moving simultaneously on its north pole and as many as five on its south pole.

Even more amazing things are lurking below. Researchers have long wondered about the giant planet’s hidden interior. How far down do Jupiter’s continent-sized storms descend? And what is the exotic material near the planet’s core?

Deep inside Jupiter, high temperatures and crushing pressures transform Jupiter’s copious supplies of gaseous molecular hydrogen into an exotic form of matter known as liquid metallic hydrogen. Think of it as a mashup of atomic nuclei in a sea of electrons freely moving about. Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field almost certainly springs from dynamo action in Jupiter’s interior, the process by which the motion of this electrically-conducting fluid is converted into magnetic energy. The exact location within the interior is a mystery that researchers are still working to solve.

Read more: New science from Jupiter

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