NASA reveals what lies beneath Jupiter’s swirling surface

The inner workings of Jupiter are amongst the most tantalising mysteries of our solar system. While the planet’s Great Red Spot and tempestuous bands are iconic, little is know about what lies beneath. Now, thanks to unprecedented findings from NASA’s Juno spacecraft, we have a better idea about what happens at the core of this turbulent titan.

Using high-precision gravitational measurements, Juno has produced findings that show the inner 96% of the planet rotates “as a solid body”, even if this is made of an extremely dense mixture of hydrogen and helium. Before you get to this layer of Jupiter, however, there is a whopping 3,000 kilometers of atmosphere – those swirling bands of clouds that can be seen from the surface.

This latter finding could be a crucial piece of evidence to gleaning the nature of Jupiter’s storms. There has been disagreement over whether the planet’s bands are a weather system, comparable to the Earth’s jet streams, or whether they are an aspect of a deeper-seated convection system that transports energy out of the interior. The investigation using Juno points to the latter.

The study is published across four separate articles in the journal nature (1,2,3 and 4), covering the planets asymmetrical gravitational field, polar cyclones, atmospheric flows and interior makeup. The findings were made possible because of Juno’s gravity and radio sensors, in addition to a suite of other instruments. Juno passed closer to the planet than any other spacecraft before – sometimes only a few thousand kilometers.juno_jupiter_interior

(Credit: NASA)

In one of the papers, Alberto Adriani from the Institute for Astrophysics and Space Planetology in Rome, Italy, and his colleagues, measured the cyclones at Jupiter’s poles using infrared. In a first, they found that these cyclones were in polygonal patterns, with eight surrounding one central cyclone at the north pole, and five around one in the south pole (as you can see in the lead image).   

Based on the findings, here’s what you would encounter if you fell into Jupiter’s surface: first you’d fall through 3,000 kilometers of atmosphere, which would be made of hydrogen and helium, with traces of methane and ammonia. As you got closer to the centre, this gas would become so dense that the hydrogen would be ionised into a metallic hydrogen gas with a density close to water, and the helium would condense into rain. If you made it right to the core, you’d find pressures ten million times higher than the Earth’s surface (good luck surviving in that) and a soup of the gases mixed with heavy metal rocks.  

In a written accompaniment to the research, Jonathan Fortney, an astronomer at the University of California Santa Cruz, says that the research could open the doors to understanding more about Jupiter’s most iconic feature; it’s Great Red Spot:

“In terms of future work, scientists could use the Juno spacecraft to measure the depths of storms on Jupiter such as the Great Red Spot, or to observe the planet’s response to tides raised by its large moons. Such analyses would provide a further window into Jupiter’s interior.”

Last year, NASA released images taken by Juno of the Great Red Spot – a storm that’s bigger than the entire earth. This was followed by images of the planet’s cloud formations that looked much like a post-Impressionist painting. Regardless of what makes Jupiter tick, the results are sublime.

Lead image credit: NASA

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