NASA is learning some of the secrets of the largest planet in the solar system, revealing data Thursday from the space agency’s Juno mission to Jupiter.
Jupiter, the fifth planet from the sun, is a gas giant with an atmosphere mainly composed of helium and hydrogen, and characterized by towering clouds of ammonia and turbulent storms, including one that has raged for hundreds of years and is larger than Earth, known as the Great Red Spot.
With the initial scientific information from Juno, researchers are realizing the planet is even more complex than scientists imagined.
The spacecraft’s camera, called the JunoCam, recorded images of Jupiter’s north and south poles that show colossus, swirling Earth-sized storms, knocking into each other as they rocket around the top and bottom of the planet. The storms covering the north pole are very different from those in the south, though.
“We’re puzzled as to how they could be formed, how stable the configuration is, and why Jupiter’s north pole doesn’t look like the south pole,” Juno’s principal investigator Scott Bolton said in a briefing about the new data.
Bolton said it’s also unclear whether these are permanent storms at the poles.
“We’re questioning whether this is a dynamic system, and are we seeing just one stage, and over the next year, we’re going to watch it disappear, or is this a stable configuration and these storms are circulating around one another,” Bolton said.
Juno has also revealed new information about the planet’s irregular and lumpy magnetic field and its gaseous atmosphere.
Researchers are hoping to learn more about the Giant Red Spot, too, one of the “most iconic features in the entire solar system.
“If anybody is going to get to the bottom of what is going on below those mammoth swirling crimson cloud tops, it’s Juno and her cloud-piercing science instruments,” Bolton predicted.
The Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5, 2011, and entered Jupiter’s orbit last summer on July 4.
The results from Thursday’s briefing were collected in a Juno fly-by last August when the craft was within 2,600 miles of Jupiter’s cloud tops, NASA said.