Analysis of comet impacts on Jupiter have helped scientists reveal the existence of storms with winds of unimaginable proportions.
Of all the planets in our solar system, I find Jupiter the most amazing. Not only because the gas giant is like a cosmic painting, but because of its many peculiarities, its incredible size, and how much its existence has contributed to the emergence—and evolution—of life on Earth.
Studying Jupiter has helped us better understand our solar system, how it formed, and what we can expect from distant star systems. Studying its many moons has helped us better understand the possibilities of life in the solar system and how distant alien moons behave in orbit around supermassive planets.
But there is still much to learn, and one of the greatest enigmas concerning Jupiter are its powerful storms.
Using the ALMA array (Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array), a team of astronomers has directly measured the winds in Jupiter’s middle atmosphere for the first time.
This was possible by analyzing the outcome of a series of cometary collisions in the 1990s, which helped researchers understand that near Jupiter’s poles, winds of enormous power exist, with speeds of up to 1,450 kilometers per hour.
These “unimaginable winds” could represent what the team has described as a “unique weather beast in our Solar System.”
These powerful storms are one of the key characteristics of Jupiter, contributing to the gas giants famous, distinctive red and white bands; swirling clouds of moving gas that astronomers traditionally used to track the winds of Jupiter’s lower atmosphere.
Astronomers have also seen, near Jupiter’s poles, vivid auroras, which appear to be associated with strong winds in the planet’s upper atmosphere.
Until now, researchers have never been able to directly measure the patterns of winds that take place between these two atmospheric layers in the stratosphere.
Measuring wind speeds in Jupiter’s stratosphere using cloud tracking techniques is impossible due to the absence of clouds in this part of the atmosphere.
However, astronomers obtained help in making these measurements, and it comes from an unexpected source: Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with the gas giant spectacularly in 1994.
As it turns out, this impact produced new molecules in Jupiter’s stratosphere and have been moving with the powerful Jovian winds ever since.
Now, a team of astronomers, led by Thibault Cavalié of the Bordeaux Astrophysics Laboratory (France), has tracked one of these molecules – hydrogen cyanide – to measure the stratospheric “jets” on Jupiter directly.
Scientists use the word “jets” to refer to narrow bands of wind in the atmosphere, like jet streams from Earth.
“The most spectacular result is the presence of strong jets, with speeds up to 400 meters per second (900 miles per hour), which are located under the auroras at the poles,” revealed LAB’s Thibault Cavalié, lead author of the paper.
“The stratospheric jets could behave like a giant vortex with a diameter up to four times that of Earth,” explained co-author Bilal Benmahi, also of LAB.
In addition to discovering surprisingly powerful polar winds, the team used ALMA to establish, also for the first time, the existence of strong stratospheric winds around the planet’s equator by directly measuring their speed.
The jets detected in this part of the planet have average speeds of about 600 kilometers per hour.
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