It is the biggest planet in our solar system, and you can easily see it with a small telescope from your backyard. Still we don’t know much about Jupiter’s inner composition and dynamics. Yamila Miguel used data of NASA’s Juno spacecraft to take a deeper look than ever into the gas giant. She discovered that the winds on Jupiter extend to a depth of about 3000 kilometres, defying some previous theories about the planet.
The deep storms that rage on Jupiter
Yamila Miguel was studying exoplanets around other stars when she found out there are still many mysteries about the planets in our own solar system. Take for example Jupiter, which weighs 2.5 times as much as all the other planets in our solar system combined. Until now, scientists struggled to determine the composition and dynamics of this planet beneath its swirling opaque clouds.
Now, Miguel is working as an assistant professor at Leiden Observatory. She is involved in NASA’s Juno mission, that is currently orbiting Jupiter closely. Via gravitational measurements the spacecraft probes the interior of the planet which, unlike Earth, has no solid surface.
‘We found that there is a lot of gas blowing around on Jupiter’, Miguel says. ‘The winds go down as deep as 3000 kilometres, which is about four per cent of the radius of the planet.’ Scientists expected a much shallower ‘layer of weather’. Beneath this thick layer the planet behaves more like a rigid body, and has a uniform rotation.
What is hidden even deeper in the gas giant is still an open question, but Miguel’s research helps to build a model of the core of the planet. ‘We think there must be a core made out of rocks and ice. But to be sure we also need to know how the material of which Jupiter is made – mainly hydrogen and helium – behaves at these incredible pressures, which are tens of millions of times the pressure on the surface of our planet. Maybe laboratory experiments on Earth can shine a light on that.’
Jupiter was most likely one of the first planets to form in the solar system. Because of its size, it had a great influence on the rest of the material around the Sun. To learn about Jupiter is to learn about the formation of the solar system. It can even help scientists understand the formation and history of our own planet.
In the next few years, Juno will be gathering more information about Jupiter. It will fly over the Great Red Spot, a storm that has been raging for over 350 years, and Juno will also try to take a look beneath the clouds with an on-board microwave instrument. ‘It is very hard to see through the opaque ammonia clouds of the planet. Jupiter hides its secrets very well. But Juno is equipped to lift the veil a bit before it crashes into the planet in 2021’, Miguel says.
Yamila Miguel (Buenos Aires, 1981) knew from a young age that she was going to be a scientist. She got her Bachelor of Science in Astronomy in 2007 from La Plata National University in Buenos Aires and received her PhD in 2011, studying the formation of planetary systems. After that, she started researching atmospheres of exoplanets at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. Miguel then got involved in the study of the interior of Jupiter, at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in France. This year she started working as an assistant professor at Leiden Observatory. She hopes the knowledge about Jupiter can one day be used to learn more about exoplanets, and our place in the universe.