A cyclone on Jupiter. NASA photo

Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported Monday that cyclones seen on the giant planet Jupiter some 500 million miles away match familiar patterns seen in Earth’s oceans.

A study published in the journal Nature Physics uses ocean physics to explain the rich turbulence at Jupiter’s poles and the physical forces that drive the large cyclones.

Lead author Lia Siegelman, an oceanographer and postdoctoral researcher at Scripps, decided to pursue the study after noticing that the cyclones seem to share similarities with ocean vortices she studied during her time as a doctoral student.

Using an array of images from NASA’s Juno spacecraft and principles of geophysical fluid dynamics, Siegelman and her colleagues provided evidence for a longtime hypothesis that a process similar to moist convection — when hotter, less dense air rises — drives these cyclones.

“When I saw the richness of the turbulence around the Jovian cyclones with all the filaments and smaller eddies, it reminded me of the turbulence you see in the ocean around eddies,” said Siegelman. “These are especially evident on high-resolution satellite images of plankton blooms for example.” 

Siegelman said that understanding Jupiter’s cyclones, which occur at a scale much larger than Earth, could shed light on climate processes on Earth. 

“To be able to study a planet that is so far away and find physics that apply there is fascinating,” she said. “It begs the question, do these processes also hold true for our own blue dot?”

Juno is the first spacecraft to capture images of Jupiter’s poles. Previous probes orbited the equatorial region of the planet, or made flybys.

The spacecraft is equipped with two camera systems, one for visible light and another for infrared. From the images, researchers could calculate wind speed and direction, as well as track hot and cold cloud layers in the giant planet’s atmosphere of hydrogen, helium, methane and ammonia .

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.