Science & Technology

This New Juno Image Makes Jupiter's Poles Look Like Cinnamon Buns from Hell

On Earth, hurricane and cyclone season brings swirling storms that can last for weeks. On Saturn, there's one huge cyclone at the north pole that's lasted as long as we've been watching. Thanks to NASA's Juno mission, we now know that Jupiter has cyclones at its poles, too — but they're nothing like what we expected.

Turn, Turn, Turn

Juno entered Jupiter's orbit in 2016, and has traveled more than 120 million miles (200 million kilometers) since then in its quest to probe the gas giant's thick atmosphere and powerful weather. In March of 2018, a team of researchers created a composite image captured by Juno's Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM), which images the infrared energy that radiates from inside the planet — up to 45 miles (70 kilometers) beneath the clouds.

While we've known about the bands of orange and white that stripe the middle of the planet for hundreds of years, the JIRAM image of the north pole was a surprise to the researchers. What it showed was a large central cyclone surrounded by eight smaller cyclones, each stretching up to 2,900 miles (4,600 kilometers) across — a diameter wider than the entire United States. What Juno found at the south pole was even more extreme: one central cyclone surrounded by five cyclones each measuring up to 4,300 miles (7,000 kilometers) in diameter.

"Each one of the northern cyclones is almost as wide as the distance between Naples, Italy and New York City — and the southern ones are even larger than that," lead author Alberto Adriani said in a press release. "They have very violent winds, reaching, in some cases, speeds as great as 220 mph (350 kph). Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, they are very close together and enduring. There is nothing else like it that we know of in the solar system."

Swirling Mysteries

These polar cyclones are so close together that they actually touch. But on Earth, when two hurricanes or cyclones meet, they merge. These cyclones have stayed individuals, even over seven months of observations.

"The question is, why do they not merge?" Adriani said. "We know with Cassini data that Saturn has a single cyclonic vortex at each pole. We are beginning to realize that not all gas giants are created equal."

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Written by Ashley Hamer March 26, 2018

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