NASA’s Juno Mission reveals new information about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, and more

New information obtained from the Juno mission has unveiled the atmospheric processes behind Jupiter’s stripes, polar cyclones, and even the Great Red Spot.  

NASA officials and researchers explained their findings in a recent media teleconference.  Launched in 2011, Juno inserted itself into Jovian orbit in 2016 after completing an Earth-powered gravity assist in 2013.  Since reaching Jupiter, Juno has completed 37 passes around the gargantuan planet.  Data collected from these flyby’s offer a new glimpse deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere.  

Belts and Zones

Jupiter is characterized by its signature gaseous stripes.  These reddish-orange and white bands, known respectively as belts and zones, are separated by quickly moving winds that travel both eastward or westward.  Great vortices, including the infamous great red spot, form along these boundaries.  The belts and zones have long fascinated planetary scientists.  Using data collected by Juno during its many passes of Jupiter, scientists found that ammonia in Jupiter’s atmosphere moves in correlation with the belts and zones.  

“3D” infrared view of Jupiter on left, contrasted with visible light on right. Notice how the bands are clearly visible in both images
[Credits: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/NASA/ESA, M.H. Wong and I. de Pater (UC Berkeley) et al.]

“By following the ammonia, we found circulation cells in both the north and south hemispheres that are similar in nature to ‘Ferrel cells,’ which control much of our climate here on Earth,” said Keren Duer, who has published work on Ferrel cells.  “While Earth has one Ferrel cell per hemisphere, Jupiter has eight – each at least 30 times larger.”

Another interesting discovery is a transition point found 40 miles beneath Jupiter’s water cloud layer.  

“We are calling this level the ‘Jovicline’ in analogy to a transitional layer seen in Earth’s oceans, known as the thermocline – where seawater transitions sharply from being relative warm to relative cold,” said Leigh Fletcher of the University of Leicester, who has worked on the Juno mission.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot compared to the Earth. Notice the depth of the spot.
[Credit: JunoCam Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS; JunoCam Image processing by Kevin M. Gill (CC BY); Earth Image: NASA]

Vortices and Great Red Spot

In addition to the belts and zones, Jupiter is home to plenty of swirling vortices swirling across the atmosphere.  Probably Jupiter’s most defining feature – the Great Red Spot – has been the subject of extensive study for years.  Finally, researchers have discovered the true extent of its size.  Using data about the changes in Juno’s velocity on different passes over Jupiter, researchers were able to get an idea about the Great Red Spot’s gravitational pull.  Using this information, researchers were able to estimate how deep the spot is – a whopping 300 miles down into the “surface.”

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