The James Webb Space Telescope might be best known for its study of extremely distant galaxies, but it is also used for research on targets closer to home, like planets within our solar system. Last year, the telescope captured a stunning image of Jupiter as seen in the infrared wavelength, and now scientists who have been working on this data have published some of their findings about the planet — including a brand-new feature that they identified in its atmosphere.
Jupiter’s atmosphere is a dramatic, turbulent place, with epic storms like the famous Great Red Spot, which is a storm stretching over 200 miles wide. But the researchers also identified a new feature there — a high-speed jet stream that is an incredible 3,000 miles wide and located over the planet’s equator. This jet stream is high up in the atmosphere, above the main cloud layer, and was visible in the data taken with Webb’s NIRCam instrument.
“This is something that totally surprised us,” said lead researcher Ricardo Hueso of Spain’s University of the Basque Country in a statement. “What we have always seen as blurred hazes in Jupiter’s atmosphere now appear as crisp features that we can track along with the planet’s fast rotation.”
Webb’s near-infrared instruments are ideal for looking at the upper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and are accurate enough to resolve the blurry haze into clearer details. By tracking the movement of small clouds, the researchers could calculate the speed of the jet stream. That showed the jet stream moves at a speed of 320 mph, or around twice the wind speed of a Category 5 hurricane.
Researchers want to observe the jet stream over the next few years to see if its speed is related to the pattern of winds and temperatures seen in the planet’s stratosphere above the equator.
“It’s amazing to me that, after years of tracking Jupiter’s clouds and winds from numerous observatories, we still have more to learn about Jupiter, and features like this jet can remain hidden from view until these new NIRCam images were taken in 2022,” said team member Leigh Fletcher of England’s University of Leicester.
The research is published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
- James Webb telescope captures a dramatic image of newborn star
- How astronomers used James Webb to detect methane in the atmosphere of an exoplanet
- Scientists disagree on how fast the universe is expanding, and new tech is making it worse
- Webb and Hubble work together to image the Christmas Tree Galaxy Cluster
- James Webb snaps an image of the famous and beautiful Crab Nebula