NASA's Juno Spots Massive Waves In Jupiter's Atmosphere

NASA's Juno spacecraft has captured an image showing massive structures of moving gas that appear like waves in Jupiter's atmosphere.

The so-called wave trains—a group of waves of equal or similar length travelling in the same direction—were first detected by the Voyager missions during their flyby of the gas giant in 1979.

The photo was taken with the JunoCam instrument—a color, visible light camera with a wide angle-field designed to capture remarkable pictures of Jupiter's poles and cloud tops.

"JunoCam has counted more distinct wave trains than any other spacecraft mission since Voyager," Glenn Orton, a Juno mission scientist from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

"The trains, which consist of as few as two waves and as many as several dozen, can have a distance between crests as small as about 40 miles and as large as about 760 miles," he said.

In fact, the distance between the three individual wave crests in the image is the smallest that has ever been seen before. Meanwhile, the shadow associated with the center of the three waves is about 25 miles long. From the angle of illumination, NASA experts have deduced that the peak of the wave is probably around 6 miles above the main cloud deck.

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Three waves can be seen in this image, which is an excerpt of a JunoCam image taken on Feb. 2, 2017, during Juno's fourth flyby of Jupiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/JunoCam

"The waves can appear close to other Jovian atmospheric features, near vortices or along flow lines, and others exhibit no relationship with anything nearby," Orton said. "Some wave trains appear as if they are converging, and others appear to be overlapping, possibly at two different atmospheric levels. In one case, wave fronts appear to be radiating outward from the center of a cyclone."

The latest image provides valuable information on both the dynamics of Jupiter's atmosphere and its structure in the regions beneath the waves.

While the exact cause of the waves remains unclear, most are thought to be atmospheric gravity waves—ripples that form in the atmosphere above something that disturbs air flow, such as a thunderstorm draft.

Juno launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 5, 2011, arriving at Jupiter in July 2016. So far it has completed 15 scientific flybys around the planet, providing fascinating insights into the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetic field.