Gaze in Wonder at Jupiter’s Mysterious Geometric Polar Storms

When the Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter in July 2016, it quickly got to work. Among the multitude of stunning images of the planet were our first ever images of Jupiter’s poles. And what we saw there was a huge surprise: geometric arrangements of cyclones in persistent patterns.

Jupiter’s polar regions have always been a mystery to Earth-bound observers. The planet isn’t tilted much, which means the poles are always tantalizingly out of view. Other spacecraft visiting Jupiter have focused on the equatorial regions, but Juno’s circumpolar orbit is giving us good, close-up views of Jupiter’s poles.

“They are extraordinarily stable arrangements of such chaotic elements. We’d never seen anything like it.” – Morgan O’Neill, University of Chicago

Juno has a whole suite of instruments designed to unlock some of the mysteries surrounding Jupiter, including an infrared imager and a visible light camera. The polar regions are a particular focus for the mission, and astronomers were looking forward to their first views of Jupiter’s hidden poles. They were not disappointed when they got them.

Each of Jupiter’s poles is a geometric array of large cyclones arranged in persistent, polygonal patterns. At the north pole, eight storms are arranged around a single polar cyclone. In the south, one storm is encircled by five others.

Jupiter’s north pole is an arrangement of 8 cyclones around one central cyclone. Image: NASA/SWRI/JPL/ASI/INAF/IAPS

This was a stunning discovery, and quickly led to questions around the why and the how of these storm arrangements. Jupiter’s atmosphere is dominated by storm activity, including the well-known horizontal storm bands in the equatorial regions, and the famous Great Red Spot. But these almost artful arrangements of polar storms were something else.

The persistent arrangement of the storms is a puzzle. Our current understanding tells us that the storms should drift around and merge, but these storms do neither. They just turn in place.

A new paper published in Nature is looking deeper into these peculiar arrangements of storms. The paper is by scientists from an international group of institutions including the University of Chicago. It’s one of four papers dedicated to new observations from the Juno spacecraft.

One of the paper’s co-authors is Morgan O’Neill, a University of Chicago postdoctoral scholar. Remarking on the storms, she had this to say: “They are extraordinarily stable arrangements of such chaotic elements. We’d never seen anything like it.”

This image from Juno’s JunoCam captured the south pole in visible light only. It’s a puzzle why the north and south poles are so similar, yet have a different number of cyclones. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

The strange geometrical arrangement of Jupiter’s polar storms reminded O’Neill of something from the library of strange physical phenomena only observed under laboratory conditions. Back in the ’90s, scientists had used electrons to simulate a frictionless, turbulent 2-D fluid as it cools. In those conditions, they observed similar behaviour. Rather than merging like expected, small vortices clumped together and formed equally spaced arrays around a center. They called these arrays “vortex crystals.”

This could help explain what’s happening at Jupiter’s poles, but it’s too soon to be certain. “The next step is: Can you create a model that builds a virtual planet and predicts these flows?” O’Neill said. That’ll be the next step in understanding the phenomenon.

Maybe it’s not surprising that these delicate-looking storms at the poles are so persistent. After all, the Great Red Spot on Jupiter has been visible for over 200 years. Maybe Jupiter is just huge and stable.

But the polar cyclones still require an explanation. And whatever that explanation is, understanding what’s happening on Jupiter will help us understand other planets better.

Juno Captures Jupiter’s Enthralling Poles From 2,500 Miles

JunoCam captured this image of Jupiter's north pole region from a distance of 78,000 km (48,000 miles) above the planet.

Juno is sending data from Jupiter back to us, courtesy of the Deep Space Network, and the first images are meeting our hyped-up expectations. On August 27, the Juno spacecraft came within about 4,200 km. (2,500 miles) of Jupiter’s cloud tops. All of Juno’s instruments were active, and along with some high-quality images in visual and infrared, Juno also captured the sound that Jupiter produces.

Juno has captured the first images of Jupiter’s north pole. Beyond their interest as pure, unprecedented eye candy, the images of the pole reveal things never before seen. They show storm activity and weather patterns that are seen nowhere else in our solar system. Even on the other gas giants.

“…like nothing we have seen or imagined before.”

“First glimpse of Jupiter’s north pole, and it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It’s bluer in color up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms. There is no sign of the latitudinal bands or zone and belts that we are used to — this image is hardly recognizable as Jupiter. We’re seeing signs that the clouds have shadows, possibly indicating that the clouds are at a higher altitude than other features.”

The iconic storm bands of Jupiter are absent in this JunoCam image of Jupiter's northern polar region. Instead, the region is dominated by swirling storm patterns reminiscent of hurricanes here on Earth. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS
The iconic storm bands of Jupiter are absent in this JunoCam image of Jupiter’s northern polar region. Instead, the region is dominated by swirling storm patterns reminiscent of hurricanes here on Earth. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

The visible light images of Jupiter’s north pole are very different from our usual perception of Jupiter. People have been looking at Jupiter for a long time, and the gas giant’s storm bands, and the Great Red Spot, are iconic. But the north polar region looks completely different, with whirling, rotating storms similar to hurricanes here on Earth.

The Junocam instrument is responsible for the visible light pictures of Jupiter that we all enjoy. But the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) is showing us a side of Jupiter that the naked eye will never see.

The Juno Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) captured this infrared image of Jupiter's south pole. This part of Jupiter cannot be seen from Earth. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS
The Juno Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) captured this infrared image of Jupiter’s south pole. This part of Jupiter cannot be seen from Earth. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

“JIRAM is getting under Jupiter’s skin, giving us our first infrared close-ups of the planet,” said Alberto Adriani, JIRAM co-investigator from Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali, Rome. “These first infrared views of Jupiter’s north and south poles are revealing warm and hot spots that have never been seen before. And while we knew that the first-ever infrared views of Jupiter’s south pole could reveal the planet’s southern aurora, we were amazed to see it for the first time.”

“No other instruments, both from Earth or space, have been able to see the southern aurora.”

Even when we’re prepared to be amazed by what Juno and other spacecraft show us, we are still amazed. It’s impossible to see Jupiter’s south pole from Earth, so these are everybody’s first glimpses of it.

“No other instruments, both from Earth or space, have been able to see the southern aurora,” said Adriani. “Now, with JIRAM, we see that it appears to be very bright and well-structured. The high level of detail in the images will tell us more about the aurora’s morphology and dynamics.”

Beyond the juicy images of Jupiter are some sound recordings. It’s been known since about the 1950’s that Jupiter is a noisy planet. Now Juno’s Radio/Plasma Wave Experiment (WAVE) has captured a recording of that sound.

“Jupiter is talking to us in a way only gas-giant worlds can,” said Bill Kurth, co-investigator for the Waves instrument from the University of Iowa, Iowa City. “Waves detected the signature emissions of the energetic particles that generate the massive auroras which encircle Jupiter’s north pole. These emissions are the strongest in the solar system. Now we are going to try to figure out where the electrons come from that are generating them.”

Oddly enough, that’s pretty much exactly what I expected Jupiter to sound like. Like something from an early sci-fi film.

There’s much more to come from Juno. These images and recordings of Jupiter are just the result of Juno’s first orbit. There are over 30 more orbits to come, as Juno examines the gas giant as it orbits beneath it.