Juno Finds that Jupiter’s Gravitational Field is “Askew”

Since it established orbit around Jupiter in July of 2016, the Juno mission has been sending back vital information about the gas giant’s atmosphere, magnetic field and weather patterns. With every passing orbit – known as perijoves, which take place every 53 days – the probe has revealed more interesting things about Jupiter, which scientists will rely on to learn more about its formation and evolution.

During its latest pass, the probe managed to provide the most detailed look to date of the planet’s interior. In so doing, it learned that Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field is askew, with different patterns in it’s northern and southern hemispheres. These findings were shared on Wednesday. Oct. 18th, at the 48th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciencejs in Provo, Utah.

Ever since astronomers began observing Jupiter with powerful telescopes, they have been aware of its swirling, banded appearance. These colorful stripes of orange, brown and white are the result of Jupiter’s atmospheric composition, which is largely made up of hydrogen and helium but also contains ammonia crystals and compounds that change color when exposed to sunlight (aka. chromofores).

Illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

Until now, researchers have been unclear as to whether or not these bands are confined to a shallow layer of the atmosphere or reach deep into the interior of the planet. Answering this question is one of the main goals of the Juno mission, which has been studying Jupiter’s magnetic field to see how it’s interior atmosphere works. Based on the latest results, the Juno team has concluded that hydrogen-rich gas is flowing asymmetrically deep in the planet.

These findings were also presented in a study titled Comparing Jupiter interior structure models to Juno gravity measurements and the role of a dilute core, which appeared in the May 28th issue of Geophysical Research Letters. The study was led by Sean Wahl, a grad student from UC Berkeley, and included members from the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Another interesting find was that Jupiter’s gravity field varies with depth, which indicated that material is flowing as far down as 3,000 km (1,864 mi). Combined with information obtained during previous perijoves, this latest data suggests that Jupiter’s core is small and poorly defined. This flies in the face of previous models of Jupiter, which held that the outer layers are gaseous while the interior ones are made up of metallic hydrogen and a rocky core.

As Tristan Guillot – a planetary scientist at the Observatory of the Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, and a co-author on the study – indicated during the meeting, “This is something that was not expected. We were not sure at all whether we would be able to see that… It’s clear that giant planets have a lot of secrets.”


This artist's illustration shows Juno's Microwave Radiometer observing deep into Jupiter's atmosphere. The image shows real data from the 6 MWR channels, arranged by wavelength. Credit: NASA/SwRI/JPL
This artist’s illustration shows Juno’s Microwave Radiometer observing deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere. The image shows real data from the 6 MWR channels, arranged by wavelength. Credit: NASA/SwRI/JPL

But of course, more passes and data are needed in order to pinpoint how strong the flow of gases are at various depths, which could resolve the question of how Jupiter’s interior is structured. In the meantime, the Juno scientists are pouring over the probe’s gravity data hoping to see what else it can teach them. For instance, they also want to know how far the Great Red Spot extends into the amotpshere.

This anticyclonic storm, which was first spotted in the 17th century, is Jupiter’s most famous feature. In addition to being large enough to swallow Earth whole – measuring some 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) in diameter – wind speeds can reach up to 120 meters per second (432 km/h; 286 mph) at its edges. Already the JunoCam has snapped some very impressive pictures of this storm, and other data has indicated that the storm could run deep.

In fact, on July 10th, 2017, the Juno probe passed withing 9,000 km (5,600 mi) of the Great Red Spot, which took place during its sixth orbit (perijove six) of Jupiter. With it’s suite of eight scientific instruments directed at the storm, the probe obtained readings that indicated that the Great Red Spot could also extend hundreds of kilometers into the interior, or possibly even deeper.

As David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology and a co-author on the study, said during the meeting, “It’s not yet clear that it is so deep it will show up in gravity data. But we’re trying”.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, as imaged by the Juno spacecraft’s JunoCam at a distance of just 9,000 km (5,600 mi) from the atmosphere. Credit : NASA/SwRI/MSSS/TSmith

Other big surprises which Juno has revealed since it entered orbit around Jupiter include the clusters of cyclones located at each pole. These were visible to the probe’s instruments in both the visible and infrared wavelengths as it made its first maneuver around the planet, passing from pole to pole. Since Juno is the first space probe in history to orbit the planet this way, these storms were previously unknown to scientists.

In total, Juno spotted eight cyclonic storms around the north pole and five around the south pole. Scientists were especially surprised to see these, since computer modelling suggests that such small storms would not be stable around the poles due to the planet’s swirling polar winds. The answer to this, as indicated during the presentation, may have to do with a concept known as vortex crystals.

As Fachreddin Tabataba-Vakili – a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-author on the study – explained, such crystals are created when small vortices form and persist as the material in which they are embedded continues to flow. This phenomenon has been seen on Earth in the form of rotating superfluids, and Jupiter’s swirling poles may possess similar dynamics.

In the short time that Juno has been operating around Jupiter, it has revealed much about the planet’s atmosphere, interior, magnetic field and internal dynamics. Long after the mission is complete – which will take place in February of 2018 when the probe is crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere – scientists are likely to be sifting through all the data it obtained, hoping to solve any remaining mysteries from the Solar System’s largest and most massive planet.

Further Reading: Nature

Harvard Physicist Creates Metallic Hydrogen Using Diamond Vise

For some time, scientists have been fascinated by the concept of metallic hydrogen. Such an element is believed to exist naturally when hydrogen is placed under extreme pressures (like in the interior of gas giants like Jupiter). But as a synthetic material, it would have endless applications, since it is believed to have superconducting properties at room temperature and the ability to retain its solidity once it has been brought back to normal pressure.

For this reason, condensed matter physicists have been attempting to create metallic hydrogen for decades. And according to a recent study published in Science Magazine, a pair of physicists from the Lyman Laboratory of Physics at Harvard University claim to have done this very thing. If true, this accomplishment could usher in a new age of super materials and high-pressure physics.

The existence of metallic hydrogen was first predicted in 1935 Princeton physicists Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington. For years, Isaac Silvera (the Thomas D. Cabot Professor at Harvard University) and Ranga Dias, a postdoctorate fellow, have sought to create it. They claim to have succeeded, using a process which they described in their recently-published study, “Observation of the Wigner-Huntington transition to metallic hydrogen“.

This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons

Such a feat, which is tantamount to creating the heart of Jupiter between two diamonds, is unparalleled in the history of science. As Silvera described the accomplishment in a recent Harvard press release:

“This is the Holy Grail of high-pressure physics. It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.”

In the past, scientists have succeeded in creating liquid hydrogen at high temperature conditions by ramping up the pressures it was exposed to (as opposed to cryogenically cooling it). But metallic hydrogen has continued to elude experimental scientists, despite repeated (and unproven) claims in the past to have achieved synthesis. The reason for this is because such experiments are extremely temperamental.

For instance, the diamond anvil method (which Silvera and Dias used a variation of) consists of holding a sample of hydrogen in place with a thin metal gasket, then compressing it between two diamond-tipped vices. This puts the sample under extreme pressure, and a laser sensor is used to monitor for any changes. In the past, this has proved problematic since the pressure can cause the hydrogen to fill imperfections in the diamonds and crack them.

While protective coatings can ensure the diamonds don’t crack, the additional materials makes it harder to get accurate readings from laser measurements. What’s more, scientists attempting to experiment with hydrogen have found that pressures of ~400 gigapascals (GPa) or more need to be involved – which turns the hydrogen samples black, thus preventing the laser light from being able to penetrate it.

Microscopic images of the stages in the creation of metallic hydrogen: Transparent molecular hydrogen (left) at about 200 GPa, which is converted into black molecular hydrogen, and finally reflective atomic metallic hydrogen at 495 GPa. Credit: Isaac Silvera

For the sake of their experiment, Professors Ranga Dias and Isaac Silvera took a different approach. For starters, they used two small pieces of polished synthetic diamond rather than natural ones. They then used a reactive ion etching process to shave their surfaces, then coated them with a thin layer of alumina to prevent hydrogen from diffusing into the crystal structure.

They also simplified the experiment by removing the need for high-intensity laser monitoring, relying on Raman spectroscopy instead. When they reached a pressure of 495 GPa (greater than that at the center of the Earth), their sample reportedly became metallic and changed from black to shiny red. This was revealed by measuring the spectrum of the sample, which showed that it had become highly reflective (which is expected for a sample of metal).

As Silvera explained, these experimental results (if verified) could lead to all kinds of possibilities:

“One prediction that’s very important is metallic hydrogen is predicted to be meta-stable. That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to the way diamonds form from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remain diamonds when that pressure and heat are removed. As much as 15 percent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission, so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story.”

Superconducting links developed to carry currents of up to 20,000 amperes are being tested at CERN. Credit: CERN

In short, metallic hydrogen could speed the revolution in electronics already underway, thanks to the discovery of materials like graphene. Since metallic hydrogen is also believed to be a superconductor at room temperature, its synthetic production would have immense implications for high-energy research and physics – such as that being conducted by CERN.

Beyond that, it would also enable research into the interior’s of gas giants. For some time, scientists have suspected that a layer of metallic hydrogen may surround the cores of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Naturally, the temperature and pressure conditions in the interiors of these planets make direct study impossible. But by being able to produce metallic hydrogen synthetically, scientists could conduct experiment to see how it behaves.

Naturally, the news of this experiment and its results is being met with skepticism. For instance, critics wonder if the pressure reading of 495 GPa was in fact accurate, since Silvera and Dias only obtained that as a final measurement and were forced to rely on estimates prior to that. Second, there are those who question if the reddish speck that resulted is in fact hydrogen, and some material that came from the gasket or diamond coating during the process.

However, Silvera and Dias are confident in their results and believe they can be replicated (which would go far to silence doubts about their results). For one, they emphasize that a comparative measurement of the reflective properties of the hydrogen dot and the surrounding gasket suggest that the hydrogen is pure. They also claim their pressure measurements were properly calibrated and verified.

In the future, they intend to obtain additional spectrographic readings from the sample to confirm that it is in fact metallic. Once that is done, they plan to test the sample to see if it is truly metastable, which will consist of them opening the vise and seeing if it remains in a solid state. Given the implications of success, there are many who would like to see their experiment borne out!

Be sure to check out this video produced by Harvard University that talks about the experiment:

Further Reading: Science Magazine, Harvard Gazette