Researchers look beneath Jupiter’s clouds using radio spectral imaging

Mike Wong/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley astronomers successfully gathered data from beneath Jupiter’s clouds after developing a new atmospheric mapping technique using radio spectral imaging, publishing their findings Friday in the journal Science.

Using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, a radio astronomy observatory in New Mexico, the astronomers were able to collect data of ammonia levels contained in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which allowed them to track upward and downward movements within the atmosphere. This information will be used to better contextualize the findings of the Juno spacecraft, which is set to arrive at Jupiter in July.

Campus astronomy professor Imke de Pater, the project’s lead researcher, said the map provided by the team’s research will help to contextualize the information gathered by the Juno observations by determining general trends at specific locations. These trends can help scientists understand readings at deeper positions within the atmosphere.

According to Michael Wong, planetary scientist in the UC Berkeley astronomy department and researcher with de Pater, the research was made possible because of significant hardware updates at the observatory that enable it to measure more than one radio frequency at a time, allowing astronomers to observe a radio spectrum. This observation, aided by new software that maps recorded observations rather than averaging them as the planet rotates, has provided data that Wong said is promising for future research of Jupiter’s development.

The Juno encounter has encouraged many researchers with separate telescopes to make their own observations of Jupiter’s atmosphere, according to de Pater. She said the collaboration on particular nights leading up to the encounter has allowed for the collection of data by different means at the same time, showing information for different depths and constituents of the atmosphere.

“If these observations are not made at the same time, then we can’t connect the variety of observations together,” de Pater said. “We need a variety of observations at the same time to make a coherent analysis of Jupiter’s atmosphere.”

The NASA-funded research provides better context of Jupiter’s atmosphere prior to the arrival of the Juno spacecraft, which will be able to complement the data collected by looking deeper into Jupiter’s atmosphere, according to Wong.

David DeBoer, a campus research astronomer who contributed to the study, said the new information may be significant for studying Jupiter’s development as a planet and the new technique used for this research may help to determine the development of other planets as well. DeBoer said that information about planet formation may be able to help identify other solar systems similar to ours in the future.

“While the weather in Jupiter is interesting, the goal is to look into the planet and see how it was formed,” DeBoer said. “I think this is a great milestone of our ability to really understand the planets in our solar system.”

Contact Trevor Greenan at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @trevor_greenan.