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NASA’s Juno spacecraft peers deep into the atmosphere of Jupiter

Researchers using NASA’s Juno probe have peered beneath Jupiter’s cloud tops to create the most detailed 3D understanding of the planet’s atmosphere to date. The research has recently been published in a series of papers in the journals Science and the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

Juno, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, is best known to the public for the beautiful images of the planet captured by its JunoCam. But much of this recent research was performed using another of Juno’s instruments: Its microwave radiometer (MWR) which can look through the clouds surrounding the planet and see deeper into its atmosphere.

Jupiter's banded appearance is created by the cloud-forming weather layer. This composite image shows views of Jupiter in infrared and visible light taken by the Gemini North telescope and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
Jupiter’s banded appearance is created by the cloud-forming weather layer. This composite image shows views of Jupiter in infrared and visible light taken by the Gemini North telescope and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/NASA/ESA, M.H. Wong and I. de Pater (UC Berkeley) et al.

“Previously, Juno surprised us with hints that phenomena in Jupiter’s atmosphere went deeper than expected,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and lead author of one of the new papers. “Now, we’re starting to put all these individual pieces together and getting our first real understanding of how Jupiter’s beautiful and violent atmosphere works — in 3D.”

Jupiter’s atmosphere is home to huge storms which are warm and thinner on top, and cooler and denser at the bottom. These epic cyclones go as deep as 60 miles into the atmosphere. And Jupiter’s most famous storm — its impressive Great Red Spot – stretches over 200 miles wide. It is so large that researchers were able to detect changes in its velocity using instruments that study the planet’s gravity.

“The precision required to get the Great Red Spot’s gravity during the July 2019 flyby is staggering,” said Marzia Parisi, a Juno scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and lead author of a paper in the journal Science on gravity overflights of the Great Red Spot. “Being able to complement MWR’s finding on the depth gives us great confidence that future gravity experiments at Jupiter will yield equally intriguing results.”

Other papers covered the belts of atmosphere which give the planet its distinctive look, and the strange geometric storms at its poles.

“These new observations from Juno open up a treasure chest of new information about Jupiter’s enigmatic observable features,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Each paper sheds light on different aspects of the planet’s atmospheric processes – a wonderful example of how our internationally-diverse science teams strengthen understanding of our solar system.”

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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