New giant wind storm swirling near Jupiter's South Pole joins family of six other cyclones

Information from this mission can shed light on the atmospheres of Jupiter and other fellow gas giants Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. They can also help scientists better understand Earth's cyclones, says the research team


                            New giant wind storm swirling near Jupiter's South Pole joins family of six other cyclones
A new cyclone can be seen at the lower right of this infrared image of Jupiter's south pole taken on November 4, 2019. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM)

Scientists have observed a never-seen-before storm swirling on Jupiter's South Pole. This newbie joins six other storms that have made the south polar region their home.

"These cyclones are a new weather phenomena that have not been seen or predicted before," says Cheng Li, a Juno scientist from the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement.

Information from this mission can shed light on the atmospheres of Jupiter and other fellow gas giants Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Furthermore, they can help us better understand Earth's cyclones, says the research team.

NASA's Juno spacecraft captured the images of the new storm when it flew past the planet for the 22nd time. The spacecraft has been keeping its eyes on Jupiter since 2016, informing scientists about the planet's magnetic field, water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere and its auroras.

Jupiter is known for its storms, the most iconic of them being the Great Red Spot — that is three times the size of Earth. 

What sets the new storm apart is its pattern. The seven storms on the south pole together look like a hexagon, with six wind storms positioning itself on the six peaks and another wind storm occupying the central position.

"It's like having a family where there is a mother in the center and [now] there is a new baby brother," Alessandro Mura, from Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics, told Cosmos.

Six cyclones form a hexagonal pattern around a central cyclone at Jupiter's south pole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM)

Juno's earlier encounters had mapped six of the seven wind storms on the south pole. And scientists believed none of these six storms would allow the seventh one to join in.

"It almost appeared like the polar cyclones were part of a private club that seemed to resist new members," says Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement.

But the 22nd flyby had a surprise in store for the team of scientists. The new observation showed a smaller cyclone being brought to life, as it joined six other storms.

"The new data indicates we went from a pentagon of cyclones surrounding one at the center to a hexagonal arrangement," says Alessandro Mura, a Juno co-investigator at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome.

"This new addition is smaller in stature than its six more established cyclonic brothers: It's about the size of Texas. Maybe data from future flybys will show the cyclone growing to the same size as its neighbors," says Mura.

A new cyclone at Jupiter's south pole has joined five other cyclones to create a hexagonal shape around a large single cyclone. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/JunoCam)

This discovery was not an easy one. The spacecraft dodged death just before the discovery: Juno's orbit was going to carry the spacecraft into Jupiter's shadow, which meant that it would not receive sunlight for 12 long hours.

As the spacecraft is solar-powered, failing to draw energy from the sun could be a death knell for the mission. 

"While the team was trying to figure out how to conserve energy and keep our core heated, the engineers came up with a completely new way out of the problem: Jump Jupiter's shadow," says Bolton.

"It was nothing less than a navigation stroke of genius. Lo and behold, the first thing out of the gate on the other side, we make another fundamental discovery," he adds.

"Thanks to our navigators and engineers, we still have a mission. What they did is more than just make our cyclone discovery possible. They made possible the new insights and revelations about Jupiter that lie ahead of us," Bolton adds.

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