Clemson astrophysicist works to unravel the mysteries hiding beneath Jupiter’s clouds

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This view of Jupiter was captured by NASA's Juno spacecraft during its sixth perijove flyby on May 19, 2017. Photo by NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.

Simple Science: Everything you need to know before reading

  • Jupiter is the fifth planet from our sun, and is 2½ times more massive than all the other planets in our solar system combined. The gas planet is surrounded by 79 known moons.
  • A NASA-led team of scientists, including Clemson University astrophysicist Máté Ádámkovics, recently detected signs of water deep beneath the surface of Jupiter’s clouds.
  • The discovery could lead to more information about the chemical composition of Jupiter and other gas planets. It could also help astronomers determine which planet formation theory is correct.

Floating in the vastness of space, nearly 500 million miles from the sun, Jupiter has long been regarded as one of the least likely places to find extraterrestrial life.

The planet, which is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, lacks a solid surface for life to develop, and its atmospheric pressures and temperatures are likely too extreme for organisms to adapt to. 

But recent research by a national team of scientists, including Clemson University astrophysicist Máté Ádámkovics, indicates that Jupiter may be more hospitable than previously thought.

While analyzing the gas giant earlier this year, Ádámkovics, along with scientists at NASA and several other universities, found hints of hydrogen and oxygen hidden deep beneath the Great Red Spot, a hurricanelike storm that’s been swirling around in Jupiter’s atmosphere for more than 150 years.

The discovery, which was featured in last month’s issue of The Astrophysical Journalsupports past models that have predicted abundant amounts of water within Jupiter’s atmosphere, according to Ádámkovics, an assistant professor in Clemson’s physics and astronomy department. 

“Water may play a critical role in Jupiter’s dynamic weather patterns, so this will help advance our understanding of what makes the planet’s atmosphere so turbulent,” Ádámkovics said in a statement. “And, finally, where there’s the potential for liquid water, the possibility of life cannot be completely ruled out. So, though it appears very unlikely, life on Jupiter is not beyond the range of our imaginations.”

Inside the Storm: 

Click the play button below to embark on a simulated flight into, and then out of, Jupiter’s upper atmosphere at the location of the Great Red Spot.

Scientists have long theorized that Jupiter’s atmosphere is composed of three distinct cloud layers: a top layer made of ammonia ice; a middle layer made of ammonium hydrosulfide crystals; and a bottom layer made of water ice and vapor.

Previous spacecraft missions have investigated the planet’s lower atmosphere, but researchers have been unable to fully analyze the chemical composition of the Great Red Spot due to its dense clouds, which make it difficult for orbiting probes and Earth-based telescopes to detect electromagnetic energy.

Ádámkovics and other members of the team, however, were able to measure infrared radiation leaking from beneath the storm’s clouds by formulating and analyzing data collected by the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and Keck 2 telescope, both of which are located at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.

The NASA Infrared Telescope Facility is outfitted with an instrument capable of detecting a wide range of gases across the color spectrum, while the Keck 2 is one of the most-sensitive infrared telescopes in the world. Combined, the instruments were able to detect light at infrared wavelengths, revealing which elements were protruding through the clouds of Jupiter. 

Ádámkovics and other members of the team used data from the ground-based telescopes to analyze the absorption patterns of a form of methane gas. Because Jupiter is too warm for methane to freeze, its abundance should not change from one place to another on the planet, according to NASA. 

By comparing methane gas emissions from the Great Red Spot to similar emissions from other areas of Jupiter, the team discovered three distinct layers of clouds blocking the infrared signal of the methane from passing through the planet’s atmosphere. 

The twin telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii are the largest optical and infrared telescopes in the world. The observatory is located atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano. Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images.

The deepest cloud layer is at 5 to 7 bars, the team concluded, right where the temperature reaches the freezing point for water. A bar is a metric unit of pressure that approximates the average atmospheric pressure on Earth at sea level, according to NASA. Altitude on Jupiter is measured in bars, because the gas planet doesn’t have a solid surface from which to measure elevation. 

“If you see that the strength of methane lines vary from inside to outside of the Great Red Spot, it’s not because there’s more methane here than there,” said Gordon Bjoraker, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, “it’s because there are thicker, deep clouds that are blocking the radiation in the Great Red Spot.”

During analysis, the team also detected large quantities of carbon monoxide emitting from the Great Red Spot, suggesting there’s an abundant supply of oxygen in Jupiter’s atmosphere to bond to hydrogen to form water when the pressure and temperature are just right. 

In fact, the pressure of the water, combined with the measurements of carbon monoxide, imply that Jupiter has two to nine times more oxygen than the sun, according to Ádámkovics. 

“Jupiter is a gas giant that contains more than twice the mass of all of our other planets combined,” Ádámkovics said. “And though 99 percent of Jupiter’s atmosphere is composed of hydrogen and helium, even solar fractions of water on a planet this massive would add up to a lot of water — many times more water than we have here on Earth.”

Ádámkovics said the data collected during the team’s recent analysis of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot could help researchers better estimate how much water exists on the entire planet by supplementing information collected by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. 

At its closest, NASA’s Juno spacecraft passes within 3,000 miles of Jupiter’s cloud tops once during each 53-day orbit. At the high end of each orbit, Juno is about 5 million miles from the planet. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The probe, which has orbited Jupiter since 2016, is using its own infrared spectrometer and microwave radiometer to search for signs of water in the planet’s atmosphere. The mission will continue through 2021, when the Juno spacecraft is expected to crash into Jupiter’s clouds.

If the probe does manage to detect signs of water in Jupiter’s atmosphere before the end of its mission, the ground-based observation technique developed by the team to measure infrared radiation could be applied not just to the Great Red Spot, but to the entire planet. 

The technique could also be used to study the chemical composition of other gas planets, according to Ádámkovics. This could help astronomers determine which planet formation theory is correct. 

Most scientists agree that planets form over millions of years as dense clouds of interstellar dust and gas fuse to rocky cores. This model, however, is unable to produce cores large enough, in a short enough period of time, to convincingly explain how gas planets like Jupiter came to be.

Ádámkovics said he plans to continue collecting and analyzing data from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and Keck 2 telescope in order to better understand Jupiter’s atmosphere. 

He also plans to recruit six to eight students who can help write automated software that’s capable of processing the raw data from the two ground-based telescopes. 

“In addition to physics students, we also have students who are computer scientists and who specialize in other fields,” Ádámkovics said. “We expect that these cross-disciplinary skill sets will complement each other by enhancing our effectiveness and efficiency. Jupiter still has many mysteries. But we’ve never been more ready or more able to solve them.”

For more information, visit physics.clemson.edu.

Juno’s Journey: 10 jaw-dropping photos of Jupiter from the NASA probe

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  • Photo Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran CC NC SA.

  • Photo Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran CC NC SA.

  • Photo Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran CC NC SA.

  • Photo Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran CC NC SA.

  • Photo Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran CC NC SA.

  • Photo Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran CC NC SA.

  • Photo Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran CC NC SA.

  • Photo Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran CC NC SA.

  • Photo Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran CC NC SA.

  • Photo Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran CC NC SA.

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