In one of the latest images Juno has sent to the North Pole, you can see why: a mixture of swirling storms, connected and interconnected, appearing calm from a distance, but raging with a force we can only imagine here on Earth.
The image was acquired during Juno’s 43rd flyby close to the giant planet of our solar system on July 5, when the spacecraft traveled 25,100 kilometers (15,600 miles) relatively close above the polar cloud tops. Because of its axial orientation, Jupiter’s poles are invisible to us most of the time, so planetary scientists rely on Juno data to make studies of the atmospheric dynamics that play a role in these mysterious and stormy regions.
The image above looks relatively calm; Zoom in to the cloud tops of Jupiter, however, and you begin to get a sense of the incredible scale of the planet’s weather and ferocity, as shown in this previous image handled by NASA engineer Kevin Gill, embedded below.
“These powerful storms can be more than 30 miles (50 kilometers) high and hundreds of miles wide,” a NASA spokesperson at JPL wrote on the JPL website.
“Knowing how they formed is key to understanding Jupiter’s atmosphere, as well as the fluid dynamics and cloud chemistry that create other features of the planet’s atmosphere. Scientists are particularly interested in the different shapes, sizes, and colors of eddies.”
Each of Jupiter’s poles has its own arrangement of storms. Antarctica had–or rather–six hurricanes, each comparable in size to the continental United States, one in the center and five storms arrayed around it in a nearly perfect pentagon, all rotating clockwise.
Between the Juno flybys, scientists could notice the appearance of the seventh storm, so the Pentagon became a gun. (This is different from the north polar hexagonal shape of Saturn, which is a hexagonal storm.)
The North Pole is even more bizarre: There, the scientists identified nine storms, eight arrayed around one in the center, all rotating counterclockwise. And in the high-latitude regions around each of these central polar sequences of storms, other eddies erupt.
Using Juno’s data, scientists have identified a mechanism by which these storms remain separate rather than merging into one massive storm, as we see at Saturn’s poles. Tracking changes between Juno flybys is one of the most important tools planetary scientists have for understanding Jupiter’s land weather, especially its poles.
Citizen scientists can join in the fun, too. The image above was processed from Juno’s raw data by a citizen scientist. If you want to give it a try, there is a very detailed how-to guide here at the BBC Sky at Night Magazine. You can find Juno’s raw images here.
Citizen scientists can also help identify and classify hurricane storms on Jupiter in the Jovian Vortex Hunter Zooniverse. This is a tool that will directly help planetary scientists to better understand this wild world.
If you like the above image, you can download it in high resolution from the JPL NASA website.