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Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere includes a high-speed jet stream

Jupiter’s atmosphere is characterized by some of the most noticeable phenomena in our solar system, with its Great Red Spot being a particularly iconic feature. Comparable to Earth’s continuous evolution, Jupiter’s characteristics shift, and there remains a lot that scientists have yet to discover. 

Swift jet stream

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been instrumental in this exploration, unveiling previously unobserved elements of Jupiter, most notably a swift jet stream cruising above the planet’s equator. 

This jet stream, though perhaps not as visually captivating as Jupiter’s other marvels, offers scientists invaluable information about the interplay of the planet’s atmospheric strata.

Unprecedented details

NASA’s innovative telescope has identified a fresh, previously undetected atmospheric detail on Jupiter. This rapid jet stream, stretching more than 3,000 miles across, hovers above Jupiter’s main cloud decks at the equator. 

Understanding this jet provides key insights into the interaction of the layers within Jupiter’s famously volatile atmosphere and highlights JWST’s distinctive prowess in monitoring such features.

“What we have always seen as blurred hazes in Jupiter’s atmosphere now appear as crisp features that we can track along with the planet’s fast rotation,” said lead author Ricardo Hueso, an astronomer at the University of Basque Country in Spain.

Focus of the study 

Data from JWST’s NIRCam, gathered in July 2022, played a pivotal role in this research. The goal was to capture images of Jupiter in distinct filters, aiming to discern variations in minor features at varying altitudes within Jupiter’s atmosphere. 

Study co-author Imke de Pater from the University of California, Berkeley, highlighted the unique revelations the telescope has brought, surpassing observations from other missions.

“Even though various ground-based telescopes, spacecraft like NASA’s Juno and Cassini, and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have observed the Jovian system’s changing weather patterns, Webb has already provided new findings on Jupiter’s rings, satellites, and its atmosphere,” he explained.

Although Earth and Jupiter differ significantly, they both possess stratified atmospheres. While other missions primarily focus on the deeper atmospheric layers, JWST’s enhanced near-infrared capabilities target the loftier layers, approximately 25-50 kilometers above Jupiter’s cloud canopy. Within this scope, the telescope delineates intricate details within the normally indistinct, luminous equatorial haze.

New insights

This newfound jet stream boasts impressive speeds, nearly double that of Earth’s most powerful hurricanes. Positioned about 40 kilometers above the cloud layer, it resides in Jupiter’s lower stratosphere. The team leveraged both JWST and Hubble data to gauge wind variations with altitude, leading to insights on wind shears.

“We knew the different wavelengths of Webb and Hubble would reveal the three-dimensional structure of storm clouds, but we were also able to use the timing of the data to see how rapidly storms develop,” said co-author Michael Wong, an astronomer at UC Berkeley, who oversaw the complementary Hubble observations that shed new light on the multi-dimensional structure of storm clouds and their rapid evolution.

Future observations 

The team eagerly anticipates future JWST observations to ascertain the consistency of the jet’s velocity and elevation. 

Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester in the UK highlighted Jupiter’s intricate but consistent wind and temperature patterns in its equatorial stratosphere, speculating on the potential variability of the jet in upcoming years.

“Jupiter has a complicated but repeatable pattern of winds and temperatures in its equatorial stratosphere, high above the winds in the clouds and hazes measured at these wavelengths. If the strength of this new jet is connected to this oscillating stratospheric pattern, we might expect the jet to vary considerably over the next two to four years – it’ll be really exciting to test this theory in the years to come,” he said.

“It’s amazing to me that, after years of tracking Jupiter’s clouds and winds from numerous observatories, we still have more to learn about Jupiter, and features like this jet can remain hidden from view until these new NIRCam images were taken in 2022,” he concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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