Exotic weather on Jupiter is caused by squishy "Mushballs" made of water and ammonia, which studies have shown cause large storms on the gas giant.
Ammonia – an important part of fertilizers – acts like an antifreeze when it mixes with ice crystals, causing them to melt and cause large storms.
Images from NASA's Juno mission have revealed large, spinning white clouds of ammonia covering more than 2,000 square miles of the planet's upper atmosphere.
These rotating banks hang up to 10 miles above Jupiter's other clouds, casting huge shadows and causing flashes of light.
Exotic weather on Jupiter is caused by squishy "Mushballs" made of water and ammonia, which trigger large storms on the gas giant
According to the team, the mushball phenomenon is unique to Jupiter's atmosphere.
"On Jupiter, as on Earth, a mixture of two-thirds of water, water and one-third of ammonia remains liquid down to a temperature of -100 ° C," said paper author and planetary scientist Tristan Guillot of the Côte d & # 39; Azur University in Nice, France.
"The ice crystals that are thrown high in Jupiter's atmosphere are melted by ammonia – and form a liquid – and become seeds for exotic hailstones, or" mushballs, "" he said.
Because the mushballs are heavier, they will drop deeper into the atmosphere until they reach a point where they evaporate. This mechanism carries ammonia and water to very deep levels in the planet's atmosphere.
"This may explain Juno measurements, where Jupiter's ammonia abundance is variable up to at least 100 miles below the visible clouds."
Water is the key to the meteorology of planets and is believed to play a key role in their formation.
Just like Earth, Jupiter's atmosphere is moved by thunderstorms that form deep in the planet's atmosphere – about 30 miles below the visible clouds – where the temperature is close to freezing.
When these storms are strong enough, they carry crystals of water ice into the upper atmosphere, the team explained – where the ice is then turned into liquid.
Measurements from the Juno mission have shown that ammonia is abundant near the Jupiter equator – but the exact values vary widely.
The pictured images from NASA's Juno mission have revealed large, spinning white clouds of ammonia covering more than 2,000 square miles of the planet's upper atmosphere
Before Juno, scientists knew that parts of Jupiter's atmosphere were depleted in ammonia at relatively shallow depths – but this had never been explained.
"The Juno mission has shown that Jupiter's atmosphere is much more complex and fascinating than previously thought," added Prof. Guillot.
At very low temperatures of around -90 ° C, water ice and ammonia vapor form a liquid. We assume this will trigger unexpected meteorology later, ”he explained.
Hailstones form from this liquid during Jupiter's violent storms, much like terrestrial storms, where hail forms in the presence of supercooled liquid water.
"The growth of hailstones creates a slush-like substance surrounded by a layer of ice, and these 'mushballs' continue to fall, vaporize and sink into the planet's deep atmosphere."
In this way, ammonia and water are sucked into deeper areas of the atmosphere.
A second study by the international team used modeling to show that the mushballs and storms "dry out" the deep atmosphere of their ammonia.
"On Jupiter, as on Earth, a mixture of two-thirds water, water and one-third ammonia remains liquid down to a temperature of -100 ° C," said paper author and planetary scientist Tristan Guillot of the Côte d & # 39; Azur University in Nice, France. "The ice crystals that were thrown high into Jupiter's atmosphere are melted by ammonia – and form a liquid – and become seeds for exotic hailstones or" mushballs "." Pictured this phenomenon
Before Juno, scientists knew that parts of the Jupiter atmosphere depicted were depleted in ammonia to relatively shallow depths – but this had never been explained
A third study reported observations of lightning strikes on Jupiter – seen by one of Juno's cameras – that appear as bright spots on the cloud cover.
Unlike previous missions where only lightning strikes were observed from deep regions, Juno was able to spot smaller, shallower missions due to its proximity to the planet.
"These flashes come from regions where temperatures are below -66 ° C and where water alone is not present in a liquid state," said Professor Guillot.
“However, the presence of a liquid is seen as critical to the lightning generation process.
"Juno's discovery of" shallow lightning storms "at heights where liquid ammonia water can be produced is an observation aid that the mushball mechanism actually works in Jupiter's atmosphere."
Understanding the meteorology of Jupiter – along with the as yet unexplored Uranus and Neptune – will shed light on other gas giants outside the solar system.
NASA's Juno spacecraft orbits the planet every 53 days, taking measurements of the composition of the planet's atmosphere from pole to pole. It was the first glimpse of Jupiter's poles, which have huge cyclones, each thousands of kilometers in diameter.
Jupiter is known for its so-called "Great Red Spot" – a wild storm that has been raging for more than 300 years. However, the entire planet is covered with bands of swirling clouds high in the atmosphere.
The full results of the studies have been published in the journals Nature and Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
How NASA's Juno probe reveals the secrets of the largest planet in the solar system for Jupiter
The Juno probe reached Jupiter in 2016 after a five-year journey of 1.8 billion miles from Earth
The Juno probe reached Jupiter on July 4, 2016 after a five-year journey of 2.8 billion km from Earth.
After a successful braking maneuver, it entered a long polar orbit that flew up to 5,000 km from the planet's swirling cloud cover.
The probe flew only 4,200 km from the planet's clouds every two weeks – too close to provide global coverage in a single image.
No previous spaceship has orbited this close to Jupiter, although two others were thrown into their destruction by its atmosphere.
To complete his risky mission, Juno survived a radiation storm generated by Jupiter's strong magnetic field.
The vortex of high-energy particles traveling at almost the speed of light is the harshest radiation environment in the solar system.
To meet the requirements, the spacecraft was protected with special radiation-hardened cabling and sensor shielding.
His all-important "brain" – the flight computer of the spacecraft – was housed in an armored vault made of titanium, which weighed almost 172 kg.
The ship is expected to study the composition of the planet's atmosphere by 2021.
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