Jupiter’s jet stream imaged by the James Webb Space Telescope

Jupiter and its dynamic atmosphere are ready for another close-up in a new image taken with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Using data from the telescope, scientists discovered a new and never-before-detected high-speed jet stream. The jet stream sits over Jupiter’s equator above the main cloud decks, moves at twice the speed of a Category 5 hurricane and spans more than 3,000 miles. The findings are described in a study published Oct. 19 in the journal Natural astronomy.

[Related: This hot Jupiter exoplanet unexpectedly hangs out with a super-Earth.]

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, and its atmosphere has some very visible features, including the infamous Great Red Spot, which is big enough to swallow Earth. The planet is constantly changing and there are still mysteries in this gas giant that scientists are trying to unravel. According to NASA, the new discovery of the jet stream helps them decipher how the layers of Jupiter’s famously turbulent atmosphere interact with each other. Now JWST is helping scientists look deeper into the planet and see some of the lower and deeper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere, home to giant storms and ammonia ice clouds.

“This is something that completely surprised us,” study co-author Ricardo Hueso said in a statement. “What we’ve always seen as a hazy haze in Jupiter’s atmosphere now looks like distinct features that we can track along with the planet’s rapid rotation.” Hueso is an astrophysicist at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain.

The research team analyzed data from JWST’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) acquired in July 2022. The Early Release Science program is designed to take images of Jupiter at 10-hour intervals (one Jupiter day) in four different filters. Each filter detects different types of changes in small elements located at different heights of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

At a wavelength of 2.12 microns, which is observed between altitudes of about 12-21 miles above Jupiter’s cloud tops, the researchers noticed several wind shears, or regions where wind speed changes with height or with distance that they allowed them to track the jet. This image highlights several of the features around Jupiter’s equatorial zone that, between one rotation of the planet (10 hours), are very clearly disturbed by the motion of the jet stream. CREDIT: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Ricardo Hueso (UPV), Imke de Pater (University of California, Berkeley), Thierry Fouche (Paris Observatory), Lee Fletcher (University of Leicester), Michael H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley) ), Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

The resulting image shows Jupiter’s atmosphere in infrared light. The jet stream is located over the equator or the center of the planet. There are numerous bright white spots and streaks that are likely very high altitude cloud tops from condensed convective storms. Jupiter’s north and south poles are dotted with auroras that appear red and extend to the higher elevations of the planet.

“While various ground-based telescopes, spacecraft such as NASA’s Juno and Cassini, and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have observed the changing weather patterns of the Jupiter system, Webb has now provided new discoveries about Jupiter’s rings, satellites and atmosphere,” study co-author and University of California, Berkeley astronomer Imke de Pater said in a statement.

The newly discovered jet stream is moving at approximately 320 miles per hour and is located about 25 miles above the clouds, in Jupiter’s lower stratosphere. The team compared winds observed by JWST at higher altitudes with winds observed in deeper layers by the Hubble Space Telescope. This allowed them to measure how quickly winds change with altitude and generate wind shear.

[Related: Jupiter formed dinky little rings, and there’s a convincing explanation why.]

The team hopes to use additional observations of Jupiter to determine whether the craft’s speed and altitude change over time.

“Jupiter has a complex but repeating pattern of winds and temperatures in its equatorial stratosphere, well above the cloud and haze winds measured at these wavelengths,” study co-author Lee Fletcher and planetary scientists at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom , said in a statement. “If the strength of this new jet is related to this oscillating stratospheric pattern, we can expect the jet to vary significantly over the next 2 to 4 years – it will be really exciting to test this theory in the coming years.”

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