Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jupiter's Atmosphere Stirs a Windy Debate

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jupiter's Atmosphere Stirs a Windy Debate

Article excerpt

For Earth's meteorologists, weather on Jupiter is more than a curiosity. Its mysteries test their basic understanding of how planetary weather systems work. Thanks to the Galileo spacecraft's scrutiny of Jupiter and recent laboratory experiments, those mysteries have begun to yield their secrets.

Andrew Ingersoll of the California Institute of Technology - lead Galileo meteorologist - explains that, in essence, Jupiter is a just a big ball of hydrogen and helium with decades-old storms. Alternating bands of jet-stream winds blow at speeds averaging around 250 miles an hour. Dr. Ingersoll notes that meteorologists stare at this Jovian weather and "would like to know what's going on." But poorly understood features like the Great Red Spot, which persists for centuries, stare back, mocking their ignorance.

Meteorologists need to know what supplies the system's energy, how that energy flows through the weather machine, and what determines the spectacular displays. The relative importance of solar heating versus internal heating is a fundamental issue. Jupiter is cooling down from its formation 4.5 billion years ago. It radiates 70 percent more energy than it receives from the sun. Internal heat The Galileo project's probe that plunged into Jupiter last December found the planet's raging winds blowing at full intensity deep beneath the visible surface. That implies that heating from below is important. Peter Olson at Johns Hopkins University and Jean-Baptiste Manneville, a recent Hopkins visiting scientist, put that suggestion to a laboratory test. They filled a plastic model of Jupiter with colored water. They spun the sphere fast enough for the outward directed centrifugal force to simulate the strength of Jupiter's inward directed gravity. Then, as Dr. Olson explains, "since we've reversed gravity, we've also reversed the temperature gradient." They chilled the sphere's core and heated its exterior. As the sphere spun, a banded weather pattern similar to that on Jupiter appeared in this upside-down experiment. This reinforces the notion that a temperature difference between the planet's core and surface maintained by interior heat drives Jovian weather. …

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