Israeli scientists have been in on NASA's effort to understand the largest planet in our Solar system from the begining. The Juno science team might help reveal what is underneath the swirling gas surface.
On July 4, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter, after traveling more than 2 billion kilometers over nearly five years. The spacecraft is now in a unique 14-day orbit that will allow it to get as close as 4000 km above the cloud tops of the planet – much closer than any mission ever before flown.
“For the first time,” explains the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Dr. Yohai Kaspi, “we will have an opportunity to study the flows beneath the thick clouds we see covering Jupiter.” Kaspi, who is part of the Juno Science team, and Institute staff scientist Dr. Eli Galanti, were at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, along with the other scientists and engineers on the Juno team, to witness the event.
Among the many questions Kaspi, Galanti and their colleagues plan to answer is this: How deep are the weather patterns we observe on Jupiter’s surface? These patterns are gas flows that appear as ordered stripes on the planet’s outer surface, and because there is no solid ground to disrupt them, they may extend very deep into the interior. Adding the third dimension to our understanding of these patterns could help to answer any number of other questions, including how do these patterns form, whether the outer layers rotate in sync with the inner ones, how thick is the famous Great Red Spot, and whether the planet has a solid inner core, which is key for understanding how planets form.
The scientists will peer for the first time beneath the thick cloud layer
Kaspi, who has been with the Juno project nearly a decade, has used the interval to work out the tools for analyzing measurements that will be taken of the planet’s gravity. Since weather – the movement of mass around the planet – creates slight variations in the planet’s gravity at different points, Kaspi and his team will use the data from Juno’s measurements of the gravitational fields to “reverse calculate” the wind patterns that modified them.
In this way, he will help scientists “peer for the first time beneath the thick cloud layer” of Jupiter. Kaspi has already applied these tools to calculating the depth of weather patterns on Uranus and Neptune, showing that the high winds on these planets are confined to a relatively shallow upper layer, as well as to analyzing measurements of Jupiter and Saturn obtained from Earth-bound telescopes. But the Juno mission will provide the first opportunity to measure the differences in Jupiter’s gravitational fields precisely and accurately, and thus develop a clearer picture of the planet’s interior and atmospheric dynamics.
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