This sequence of color-enhanced images shows Jupiter NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it swoops by the giant planet.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill)
Jupiter is by far the most massive and enigmatic planet in our solar system. Its many moons, the iconic stormy red spot, and the mysterious swirls and stripes that keep switching up their colours have puzzled astronomers for centuries.
But now, it seems that astronomers have finally decoded the latter’s secrets, thanks to NASA’s Juno Mission digging out incredible new information on Jupiter’s magnetic field.
The chameleon-esque dark and light bands wrapped around the gas giant are actually cold, windy clouds of ammonia and water, zipping around in an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium.
Scientists had long suspected that infrared (IR) variations about 50 km below the planet’s surface were somehow linked to colour-changing belts on Jupiter. However, the latest research has shown that these links go even deeper!
In actuality, these IR variations result from waves propagating from Jupiter’s deep interiors, produced by its own magnetic field. This has led scientists to believe that the changes in the planet’s magnetic field are causing these mysterious colour shifts.
“Every four or five years, things change. The colours of the belts can change, and sometimes you see global upheavals when the whole weather pattern goes slightly crazy for a bit, and it has been a mystery as to why that happens,” says Professor Chris Jones, a member of the research team.
Using the data collected by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, the study team monitored the changes in Jupiter’s magnetic field over seven long years. Their calculations revealed that the period of infrared variations synced up with the wave-like motions or torsional oscillations produced by the planet’s magnetic field.
Over the years, tracking these waves and oscillations in Jupiter’s magnetic field led researchers to the Great Blue Spot — a specific spot on the gas giant’s magnetic field. The latest data shows that this spot is moving eastwards and slowing its pace. Scientists believe this is the transition point, the beginning of the new oscillation.
From here on, scientists expect the wave’s movements to slow down before reversing and switching to a westward path, heralding changes in the IR radiations and, in turn, the planet’s coloured bands and stripes.
These findings have not only answered why Jupiter keeps changing its colours but also brought scientists closer to understanding Jupiter’s weather pattern, establishing a connecting link between the changes in the planet’s weather, its surface and deep within its interiors.
However, questions about how these Jupiterian waves produce the observed infrared variations remain.
While these answers would most likely be found by unravelling the complex dynamics and cloud or aerosol reactions in Jupiter’s weather, Dr Kumiko Hori, a co-author of the study, hopes that this research “opens a window to probe the hidden deep interior of Jupiter, just like seismology does for the Earth and helioseismology does for the Sun”.
This study was published in the journal Nature Astronomy and can be accessed here.
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