Jupiter's tempestuous, gassy atmosphere stretches some 3,000 kilometres deep and comprises a hundredth of the planet's mass, studies based on observations by NASA's Juno spacecraft revealed Wednesday.
Juno orbits Jupiter every 53 days, allowing researchers to observe what lies below the planet's surface. Among the measurements Juno beams back to Earth are those of the planet's gravity field.
As Juno edges closer, Jupiter's gravity pulls on the spacecraft and shifts the wavelength of its radio signals by a small amount.
Kaspi, together with Dr. Eli Galanti, both of the Weizmann Institute of Science's Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, had been preparing for this analysis even before Juno was launched almost seven years ago.
The asymmetry of the gravitational field allowed the researchers to estimate that the depth of its atmosphere. Now, thanks to data collected by the Juno mission, scientists have been able to take a "peek" beneath the planet's surface to see just how far these belts of strong winds extend; and its far, very far.
As these ferocious winds relentlessly circle the planet, they disrupt the even distribution of mass on the planet. Kaspi explained that the planet's wind belts, which are much stronger than the fiercest winds on Earth with speeds of up to 220 miles per hour in places - stronger than a Category-5 hurricane, cause an imbalance in its distribution of mass. Measuring this imbalance - changes in the planet's gravity field - would allow them to calculate how deep the storms extend below the surface. They expected a certain anomaly because the planet's rotation squashes its shape slightly, but additional anomalies in the measurements would most likely be due to winds in the atmosphere.
Jupiter is a type of planet called a gas giant, as opposed to rocky planets like Earth and Mars, and its composition is 99 percent hydrogen and helium.
"On a gas planet, such an asymmetry can only come from flows deep within the planet; and on Jupiter, the visible eastward and westward jet streams are likewise asymmetric north and south". When the results from Juno arrived, the measurement revealed large differences in the gravity field between north and south. "We were wrong about it", he said via email.
The calculations also show that Jupiter's atmosphere makes up 1% of its total mass. As a comparison, our atmosphere accounts for less than one-millionth of Earth's mass. "There is nothing else like it that we know of in the solar system".
"On Jupiter, a gaseous planet without a solid surface, we can only gather information from orbit", added aerospace engineering professor Luciano Iess of Sapienza University of Rome, who also led part of the research. But underneath, the planet's liquid core of hydrogen and helium rotates uniformly, behaving nearly like a solid body, researchers found. These three papers are helping build a new picture of Jupiter? from the upper cloud-level inwards.
The banded stripes circling Jupiter have fascinated people as much as the Great Red Spot, ever since Galileo first spotted the gas giant.
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