Jupiter has the craziest storms seen yet, say boffins

New pics make the gas giant's poles look like portals to hell

By Katyanna Quach


Jupiter has the strangest storm behavior observed to date, with formation patterns that have never been seen elsewhere.

The latest pictures taken from NASA’s Juno spacecraft reveal the hidden cyclones at its poles. At the north pole, eight swirling storms circled another storm at the center, and at the south pole, another five storms encircle a central vortex. These regions are not normally visible from Earth because of the planet’s low axial tilt.

The results have been analyzed in a paper published in Nature on Wednesday. It is one of four papers presented in the scientific journal detailing different parts of Jupiter, including its cluster of cyclones, gravity field, its interior, and atmosphere.

Morgan O’Neill, co-author of the cyclone paper and a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago, said: “They are extraordinarily stable arrangements of such chaotic elements. We'd never seen anything like it."

She points to a similar behavior that emerged in the 1990’s when a group of physicists used electrons to model the motion of a chaotic, frictionless 2-D fluid as it cools. Small eddies would congregate together to form “vortex crystals” around a center.

The cyclical nature is down to the coriolis effect. When mass moves on a rotating body, it experiences a force that acts perpendicular from its motion and from the axis of rotation. In another paper, it is estimated that Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere involves about 1 per cent of its total mass.

The storms at Jupiter's south pole arranged in a pentagon. Image credit: NASA/SWRI/JPL/ASI/INAF/IAPS

It’s unknown, however, how these storms hold their shape without merging into one another. How they were started and evolved to the current configuration is also unclear. At both poles, the cyclones are locked in polygonal formations. The north pole has an octagonal structure, and the south pole has a pentagon shape.

The next step is to build simulations to study the mechanics behind these storms. “Can you create a model that builds a virtual planet and predicts these flows? With further studies, they can understand the forces at play in the swirling storms,” O’Neill said.

JIRAM (Jupiter InfraRed Auroral Mapper), an infrared camera, and JunoCam, a visible light camera, snapped pictures when Juno passed close to the gas giant. Over the course of August 2016 to March 2017, the spacecraft carried out six flybys.

Juno was launched in 2011 and entered Jupiter’s orbit in 2016. It flies approximately 4,000 kilometers above the clouds and can zip from the pole to the equator in about two hours. It is expected to continue its mission until July, later this year. ®

Sign up to our NewsletterGet IT in your inbox daily


More from The Register

NASA's Kepler probe rouses from its slumber, up and running again

The old space telescope isn't giving up

NASA's Kepler telescope is sent back to sleep as scientists preserve fuel for the next data dump

Fingers crossed that the wee probe has enough energy to send something back

Martian weather has cleared at last: Now NASA's wondering, will Opportunity knock?

45 days of 'WAKE UP' calls to be shouted at teenage rover

Don't mean to alarm you – but NASA is about to pummel the planet with huge frikkin' space laser

Polar cap and sea height-measuring ICEsat-2 to fire 10k pulses at Earth each second

NASA lunar rover trundles to a meeting with Doctor Hacksaw and Mister Axe

Bits of doomed Resource Prospector may survive on commercial moon buggies

NASA will send tiny helicopter to Mars

VID Why crawl when you can fly? Because flying in a thin atmosphere is hard, but Mars 2020 will try anyway

NASA demos little nuclear power plant to help find little green men

Kilopower experiment looks good for 10 kilowatts on the Moon, Mars or beyond

NASA 'sextortionist' allegedly tricked women into revealing their password reset answers, stole their nude selfies

Then exploited pix to demand more X-rated snaps, Feds claim

Build your own NASA space rover: Here are the DIY JPL blueprints

Go on, you know you want to grab these open-source designs and lash them together

OMG! OIG to audit SLS: NASA probed over big rocket project's big budgets, big delays

Look, it's not rocket science, er, wait