Scientists are scratching their heads over geometric storms on Jupiter’s surface

Each of the cyclones is roughly the size of the United States.
Chris Young
One of the geometric patterns on Jupiter's surface.
One of the geometric patterns on Jupiter's surface.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM 

Enormous, swirling cyclones are raging on the poles of Jupiter.

These are known to be caused, in part, by polar turbulence and convection. Another phenomenon that isn't understood quite so well is why some of these massive cyclones are arranged in neat geometric patterns that stay stable for years at a time.

Astrophysicists have been scratching their heads over this phenomenon for some time, as per Vice, and some believe it may require new physics to fully understand.

Jupiter's cyclones imaged by Juno

Jupiter's cyclones were first discovered thanks to NASA's Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting the gas giant since 2016. At Jupiter's north pole, one cyclone near the pole is surrounded by eight others in an octagonal pattern. At the south pole, a similar cluster of five cyclones forms the shape of a pentagon. Each of the cyclones is roughly the size of the United States.

A group of scientists led by Andrew Ingersoll, Earle C. Anthony Professor of Planetary Sciences at the California Institute of Technology, set out to uncover the mysterious force guiding these geometric storms.

In a new paper, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the researchers detail their results, showing that an “anticyclonic ring” of winds blowing in opposite direction to the cyclones "is needed for the stability of the polygonal pattern". Some key questions do remain unanswered, however, according to the scientists.

“Since 2017 the Juno spacecraft has observed a cyclone at the north pole of Jupiter surrounded by eight smaller cyclones arranged in a polygonal pattern,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “It is not clear why this configuration is so stable or how it is maintained.”

“The polygons and the individual vortices that comprise them have been stable for the four years since Juno discovered them,” the team explained. “The polygonal patterns rotate slowly, or not at all… In contrast, Saturn has only one vortex, a cyclone, at each pole.”

The team used Juno’s Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument to measure the winds and dynamics of the cyclones raging on Jupiter's surface. JIRAM is able to image the surface of Jupiter at scales of 180 kilometers (110 miles). Using the imager, they detected strong wind currents that keep the cyclones in place, explaining their stability.

More Jupiter observations on the horizon

The researchers did also note that they, surprisingly, didn't find "the expected signature of convection,” as opposed to previous research showing it plays a key role in powering Jupiter's massive storms. Ingersoll and his team explained that more research is needed to make sense of the conflicting data. “A parallel study of Jupiter’s south polar vortices, focusing on vorticity and stability, represents a step in the right direction,” they wrote.

Scientists soon hope to uncover more of Jupiter's mysteries with more observations of Jupiter taken by the Juno mission and also the James Webb Space Telescope, which has already released a few images of the gas giant. As soon as September 29, the Juno mission will perform a close flyby of Jupiter's moon Europa, before continuing to make further observations of Jupiter.

All of these will help to understand gain a better understanding of fluid motions and may lead to the writing of new physics principles to describe the intricate workings of massive gas planets.

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