Jupiters stripes change color. Now we may know why

While Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is one of the best-known sights in the solar system, Jupiter’s clouds and streaks that are responsible for the planet’s weather patterns are also highly regarded. While not as visible in an amateur astronomy telescope, Jupiter’s whirling, swirling, multi-colored streaks of clouds are a sight to behold for any astronomy enthusiast when viewed up close. And what makes these stripes unique is that they have been observed to change color from time to time, but the question of what causes this color change has remained elusive.

This is what a recent study published Nature astronomy it hopes to tackle as an international team of researchers examines how Jupiter’s massive magnetic field may be responsible for changing the colors of Jupiter’s stripes. This study was led by Dr. Kumiko Hori of Kobe University and Dr. Chris Jones of the University of Leeds and has the potential to help scientists better understand how a planet’s magnetic field might affect a planet’s weather patterns . In this case, Jupiter’s enormous magnetic field affects its huge swirling clouds.

If you look at Jupiter through a telescope, you see the stripes, which go around the equator along lines of latitude, explains Dr. Jones. There are dark and light belts that occur, and if you look a little closer, you can see clouds whizzing around carried by extraordinarily strong easterly and westerly winds. Near the equator, the wind blows east, but when you change latitude a bit, north or south, it goes west. And then if you move a little further away it goes east again. This alternating pattern of eastward and westward winds is very different from the weather on Earth.

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While previous studies have shown that Jupiter’s appearance is somewhat altered by infrared fluctuations approximately 50 km (31 miles) below the surface of the gas cloud, this more recent study demonstrates that the infrared fluctuations could be caused by the magnetic field of Jupiter, whose source, like Earth, is much deeper within the planet.

Every four to five years things change, Dr. Jones said. The colors of the belts can change and sometimes you see global upheaval when the whole weather pattern goes slightly crazy for a while, and it’s been a mystery why that happens.

Infrared images of Jupiter from a ground-based telescope showing changes in the color of Jupiter’s clouds between 2001 and 2011 (dashed blue lines). (Credits: Arrate Antuano/NASA/IRTF/NSFCam/SpeX)

For the study, the researchers analyzed data collected over several years by NASA’s Juno spacecraft to both observe and measure changes in Jupiter’s magnetic field, more commonly known as wobbles. Despite Jupiter’s massive radiation belt that can cause immense damage to any spacecraft, Juno has been orbiting the solar system’s largest planet since 2016 and is often lauded for being still active despite the constant bombardment of radiation.

From the data, the team was able to monitor the waves and oscillations of the magnetic fields. They focused on a specific area of ​​magnetic field called the Great Blue Spot, which is invisible to the naked eye and is located near Jupiter’s equator. While this dot has been observed to be drifting eastward on Jupiter, data from this study indicate that the dot is slowing down, which the team interprets as the start of an oscillation within the magnetic field, meaning that the dot could eventually slow down enough where it reverses direction and begins traveling west.

Still image taken from a video animation showing Jupiter’s enormous magnetic field at an instant in time, specifically its Great Blue Spot located near Jupiter’s equator which is invisible to the naked eye, and has been the focus of this study. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard/Moore et al.)

The study’s findings indicate that these wobbles could explain changes in Jupiter’s streaks and bands over time, but the study stops short of saying this is the definitive reason.

Uncertainties and questions remain, particularly how exactly the torsional oscillation produces the observed infrared variation, which likely reflects the complex dynamics and cloud/aerosol reactions, said Dr. Hori, who led the research at the University of Leeds and is the lead author of the study. Those need more research. However, I hope our article can also open a window to probe Jupiter’s deep hidden interior, just as seismology does for the Earth and helioseismology for the Sun.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft

Launched in 2011 and arriving at Jupiter five years later, NASA’s Juno spacecraft has sent back some of the most breathtaking close-up images of Jupiter ever taken, along with images of Jupiter’s Galilean moons occasionally due to the spacecraft’s elongated orbit around Jupiter . This most recent study demonstrates Junos’ ongoing commitment to conducting new sciences that teach researchers something new about Jupiter and its hostile environment.

Artist’s impression of Jupiter and NASA’s Juno spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Now in its seventh year of science operations around Jupiter, Juno is currently scheduled to explore the largest planet in the solar system until September 2025, or until the end of Junos’ life.

What discoveries about Jupiter and its enormous magnetic field will Juno teach us in the coming years? Only time will tell, and that’s why we do science!

As always, keep doing the science and keep looking up!

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