Nearly six years ago, NASA launched the Lockheed Martin-built Juno spacecraft on a trajectory to Jupiter. Juno entered orbit around the gas giant last year, and the data from the first round of Juno’s observations have begun to come in. What those data reveal are a surprising new look into a mysterious planet full of otherworldly phenomena. “What we’ve learned so far is Earth-shattering. Or should I say, Jupiter-shattering,” Juno’s principal investigator Scott Bolton stated in a press release. Don’t quit your day job, Scott. Leave the humor writing to the experts.
The Juno data show that Jupiter is surrounded by a massive and dynamic magnetic field up to ten times stronger than Earth’s. The strange characteristics of Jupiter’s magnetic field indicate that it may extend far close to the planet’s surface than is typically observed in other planets’ magnetospheres, and NASA scientists aren’t sure why.
The Juno data show Jupiter to be a chaotic, violent world wracked by planet-sized storms that rage for thousands of miles through the thick Jovian atmosphere. NASA scientists poring over the Juno data also discovered a giant band of ammonia that cuts across Jupiter’s equator and extends all the way down through the gas giant’s atmosphere to Jupiter’s core. That ammonia band separates Jupiter’s two hemispheres, the poles of which differ greatly.
Jupiter’s north pole is wracked by strange and mysterious auroras which seem to be composed of entirely different energetic particles than the auroras on Earth. These auroras are far more powerful than Earth’s and seem to be constant.
At Jupiter’s south pole, Earth-sized cyclones spinning dangerously together in tight formations which curiously remain clustered around the pole.
Juno lead researcher Scott Bolton says in a NASA press release that the polar storm clusters suggest that we might not know as much about the gas giant as we thought:
We’re puzzled as to how they could be formed, how stable the configuration is, and why Jupiter’s north pole doesn’t look like the south pole. We knew, going in, that Jupiter would throw us some curves. But now that we are here we are finding that Jupiter can throw the heat, as well as knuckleballs and sliders. There is so much going on here that we didn’t expect that we have had to take a step back and begin to rethink of this as a whole new Jupiter.
Juno’s observations show that Jupiter is about as far from habitable as a planet could be (except for that newly discovered one that’s nearly as hot as the Sun, that is). As our orbital spacecraft and instruments improve, we are beginning to see that we know so, so little about our closest galactic neighbors. Soon after the Juno data came in, two tiny new Jovian moons (technically moonlets) were discovered. Sure, moonlets, intense magnetic storms, and cyclone clusters might not be little green men and women, but each new discovery puts us one step closer to understanding more of our mysterious universe.