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Experts use exoplanet hunter to study Jupiter’s winds

In an innovative study, researchers have successfully used an instrument designed to find exoplanets for exploring Jupiter’s winds, marking the first time such a tool has been applied within our Solar System. 

The research was led by a team from the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences (IA) at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, in collaboration with the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Doppler velocimetry 

The study utilized the ESPRESSO spectrograph, mounted on the VLT telescope at ESO, to measure wind speeds on Jupiter. This method, known as Doppler velocimetry, analyzes the reflection of sunlight by clouds in a planet’s atmosphere. 

Changes in the wavelength of this reflected light correspond to the clouds’ movement relative to the Earth-based telescope, revealing the wind speed at the observed location.

Originally developed by the Planetary Systems research group of IA to study Venus’s atmosphere, this method’s application with ESPRESSO on Jupiter has been highly successful. 

Focus of the research 

During five hours of observation in July 2019, the team focused on Jupiter’s equatorial zone and its north and south equatorial belts. 

“Jupiter’s atmosphere, at the level of the clouds visible from Earth, contains ammonia, ammonium hydrosulfide, and water, forming distinct red and white bands,” explained lead author Pedro Machado, an astrophysicist at IA.

Using ESPRESSO, the researchers measured Jupiter’s wind speeds ranging from 60 to 428 km/h, with an accuracy of less than 36 km/h. 

Study challenges

The study faced challenges, including navigation over Jupiter’s disk due to the VLT telescope’s high resolution.

“One of the difficulties centered on ‘navigation’ over Jupiter’s disk, that is, knowing exactly which point on the planet’s disk we were pointing to,” Machado added.

Continuous monitoring 

To confirm the effectiveness of this method, the team compared their findings with historical wind measurements, primarily obtained by space-based instruments. The consistency between the two sets of data confirms the viability of using Doppler velocimetry for monitoring Jupiter’s winds from Earth.

This continuous monitoring will be crucial in developing a reliable global circulation model of Jupiter’s atmosphere, accounting for wind differences by latitude and understanding atmospheric phenomena like Jupiter’s storms. 

Future research

The team plans to extend their observations with ESPRESSO to cover more of Jupiter’s disk and its entire rotation period of almost 10 hours. They also aim to measure winds at different altitudes to study vertical air layer transport.

Looking ahead, the researchers hope to apply this technique to other gaseous planets, with Saturn as the next target. 

The success of these observations with ESPRESSO is particularly significant as ESO designs ANDES for the upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) and in anticipation of the European Space Agency’s JUICE mission dedicated to Jupiter.

The study is published in the journal Universe,

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS. Image processing by Thomas Thomopoulos CC BY

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