If you think that Saturn’s polar storm systems are amazing then you’re gonna love this: Jupiter has them too, and not just a single central storm over each of its poles either. NASA’s Juno mission has revealed that Jupiter has not only polar vortices but also a ring of enormous cyclones spinning in formation around both of its poles—five around its south pole and a whopping eight around its northern one! Each of these cyclones is gargantuan in its own right, easily big enough to span the Atlantic Ocean, and somehow they all manage to avoid merging with their respective neighbors via some as-yet unknown process. It’s literally like nothing found anywhere else in the Solar System!
Saturn has its rings, Mars has its rusty landscape, Earth has its whales, water, and wi-fi…and Jupiter has its Great Red Spot. The giant gas planet’s enormous orange storm—once over twice the diameter of Earth but today “only” about 1.3 times as wide—is one of the most distinctive planetary features in our Solar System. It’s so well-known that even young children are sure to include its orangey oval when drawing Jupiter!
But as famous as it is, there’s a lot we still don’t know about Jupiter’s giant storm. NASA’s Juno spacecraft, launched in August 2011, has now been orbiting Jupiter since July 4, 2016 and has been using its suite of science instruments to investigate the planet’s complex atmosphere like never before possible. Thanks to Juno, for the first time scientists are able to “see” deep below Jupiter’s dense clouds (in microwave wavelengths, that is) and find out what’s happening inside the GRS. What they’ve discovered is a storm hundreds of miles deep with a hot base that powers its winds.
They’ve arrived! Images from NASA’s Juno spacecraft P7 pass have landed on Earth (a few days early no less) showing Jupiter’s Great Red Spot from the closest distance that it’s ever been imaged before. Captured on the night of July 10 (early July 11 morning UTC) the closest Junocam images were taken from a distance of only about 5,600 miles from the top of the storm’s clouds—that’s less than an Earth diameter away from a hundreds-year-old hurricane an Earth and a half wide!
I know I said in my previous post that the Solar System is not a vortex (and it’s not) but that doesn’t mean there are no vortexes in the Solar System—in fact, thanks to the churning atmospheres of the gas giants, it’s full of them! And that’s no better demonstrated than at the poles of Saturn, where giant hurricane-like storms spin away year after year, powered by atmospheric convection and the rapid rotation of the planet.
I’ve often posted about the vortex at the north pole of Saturn—and yes it’s quite impressive—but there’s also a similar feature at Saturn’s south pole as well, albeit a bit more subtle and much less turbulent. The image above is a color view, made from raw data acquired in red, green, blue, and polarized light by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on July 15, 2008. That was a just over a year before Saturn’s spring equinox and the planet’s south pole was moving into shadow, but still had enough illumination for Cassini to capture some images.
Check out a more direct view down into the vortex below:
An incredible 1,200-mile-wide vortex of spiraling clouds swirling above Saturn’s north pole is seen in all its glory in this stunning image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, originally captured last year but recently released by NASA on April 29.
Taking advantage of a new orbital trajectory that puts it high above Saturn’s rings and poles, Cassini acquired the near-infrared images used to make this composite back on Nov. 27, 2012. The resulting image is false color — our eyes aren’t sensitive to those particular wavelengths of light — but still no less amazing!