Mystery of enormous wind flows on Jupiter solved using giant lab experiment

24 Jan 2017

Illuminated miniature Jupiter in planetarium. Image: Pabkov/Shutterstock

For years, astronomers have been puzzled as to the origin of enormous wind flows on the planet Jupiter, but now, using advanced computer simulations, an answer has been found.

Contained within the gaseous giant of Jupiter are a number of mysteries that remain unsolved, due to the planet’s harsh and hazardous environment for any sort of scientific equipment, including probes.

But now, using a new piece of lab equipment and a vast amount of data, a team from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and collaborators from Marseille in France believe they have solved at least one of these mysteries.

Science meets garbage container

The mystery that has long puzzled astronomers was if the wind flows on the planet existed only in the planet’s upper atmosphere – much like the Earth’s own jet streams – or if they plunged into Jupiter’s gaseous interior.

Following its experiments, the team have published its findings in the journal Nature Physicssuggesting that these powerful winds likely extend thousands of kilometres below Jupiter’s visible atmosphere.

This new lab equipment included a table built on air bearings that can spin at 120 revolutions per minute and support a load of up to 1,000 kg, meaning it could spin a large tank of fluid at high speed in a way that mimics Jupiter’s rapid rotation.

The research team then filled an industrial-sized garbage container with 400 litres of water and placed it on the table.

Jupiter wind

A view of Jupiter’s south pole (upper left and lower right) and lab results from a new model of Jupiter’s winds (upper right and lower left). Image: Jonathan Aurnou

Plan to replicate Jupiter’s giant spot

Then, when the container spun, water was thrown against its sides, forming a parabola that approximated the curved surface of Jupiter.

The team then found that the simulation reached a practical limit of just 75 revolutions per minute, which would be fast enough to force the liquid into a strongly curved shape but slow enough to keep water from spilling out.

With some additional turbulence created using a pump below its false floor to circulate water through a series of inlet and outlet holes, the result was a water flow that changed to six concentric flows moving in alternating directions.

“We can make these features in a computer, but we couldn’t make them happen in a lab,” said UCLA professor Jonathan Aurnou.

“This is the first time that anyone has demonstrated that strong jets that look like those on Jupiter can develop in a real fluid.”

With the addition of a thin, stable layer of fluid on top of the spinning water, the team said it can replicate the thin outer layer of Jupiter’s atmosphere responsible for the planet’s weather, thereby simulating features like the planet’s famous giant spot.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic