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Scientists have discovered unexplained weather patterns on Jupiter that recur cyclically in cycles spanning years, bizarrely mirroring each other in every hemisphere. This strange discovery raises intriguing questions about the largest planet in our solar system, as well as the gas giant worlds orbiting alien stars, according to a new study.
Jupiter is so huge that it could contain 1,300 terrestrial planets, a size that makes it one of the brightest objects in the sky. Over the past few centuries, telescopes have revealed the fantastic storms raging across the upper layers of its sky and visiting spacecraft have confirmed that Jupiter’s atmosphere is unimaginably complex.
Glenn Orton, a senior investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, has been observing Jupiter since he was a kid with a backyard telescope.
In the 1990s, Orton and his colleagues Confusing signs spotted Strange weather patterns on the planet, but the researchers needed a specific set of long-term infrared data in order to understand the bigger picture.
Now, Orton and his colleagues have discovered “unexpected seasonal and non-seasonal cyclical periods,” along with “other associated mysteries,” in infrared observations of Jupiter spanning 40 years, according to A study published on Monday in a natural astronomy. The results indicate that the upper layer of Jupiter’s atmosphere, called the stratosphere, strongly influences temperatures at a lower level, known as the troposphere.
“Although there have been some previous hints at the stratosphere, the kinds of things we’ve discovered include many things we never expected,” Orton told Motherboard in an email. “That was one of my first ‘wow’ moments.”
Over the course of his career, Orton has seen Jupiter become more in focus thanks to both ground-based telescopes and a series of NASA space missions, from Pioneer 10 and 11, launched in 1972, to the Juno orbiter, which is currently orbiting the planet. These images provided brief glimpses of the cyclical temperature patterns in the troposphere that have intrigued observers of Jupiter for decades.
“My thesis at Caltech involved analyzing a combination of Pioneer 10/11 and ground-based infrared observations,” Orton said. “There were two differences between the Pioneer 10 and 11 maps of Jupiter that were several months apart. So I thought about using ground-based infrared instruments to continue to see if things kept changing. And they did, so I kept looking. And they were constantly changing with Voyager’s observations. infrared.”
Small snippets of the strange behavior continued to be revealed by new missions and ground-based telescopes, such as NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF). To build a more comprehensive view of what’s going on in Jupiter’s skies, Orton’s team used images from IRTF, the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, and the Very Large Telescope in Chile that covered the period from 1978 to 2019.
The extended timeline has shown that tropospheric temperatures on Jupiter vary periodically on time scales of four years, seven to nine years, and 10 to 14 years, for reasons that are not at all clear. Even stranger, these climatic rhythms appear to be “interconnected” at the latitudes of each gas giant’s hemisphere, “deepening the puzzle,” according to Orton.
“When temperatures rise at these latitudes in the north, temperatures decrease at these latitudes in the south, and vice versa,” he said. “So their variables are mirror images of each other.”
The researchers speculate that the differences may be caused by oscillations in the stratosphere that produce “distance connected patterns of variation between the two hemispheres,” which are likely similar to Earth’s El Niño-Southern and North Atlantic Oscillations, according to the study. Earth may also serve as a model for understanding the key role the stratosphere plays in tropospheric cycles, as sudden warming events on our planet can display this “downward” dynamic.
“In general, we will test global climate models based on the same basic principles that we use for Earth’s atmosphere in Jupiter’s atmosphere,” Orton said. “In fact, some of that work has already begun.”
In addition to examining these models, the team has continued to collect observations of Jupiter that may provide insight into the mysterious climate patterns they have discovered. Recently, researchers used the Microwave Radiometer (MWR) instrument aboard Juno to investigate how fluctuations in the stratosphere and troposphere correspond to phenomena deeper in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
These efforts may reveal the forces driving Jupiter’s turbulent climate, which in turn will help scientists understand the giant planets, and failed stars called “brown dwarfs” found throughout the universe.
“Realistic global climate models for Jupiter must address the origins of these unpredictable seasonal and non-seasonal cyclical periods on a nearly non-seasonal gas giant in preparation for their eventual extension to a larger group of brown dwarfs and gas giant planets outside our solar system,” Orton and colleagues conclude in the study.
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