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What’s the Weather on Jupiter? Cloudy with a Chance of Mushballs

6 Aug 2020, 18:20 UTC
What’s the Weather on Jupiter? Cloudy with a Chance of Mushballs
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An artist’s interpretation of high-altitude electrical storms on Jupiter. Juno’s sensitive Stellar Reference Unit camera detected unusual lightning flashes on Jupiter’s dark side during the spacecraft’s close flybys of the planet. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Heidi N. Becker/Koji Kuramura
Recent findings from NASA’s Juno mission, in orbit around Jupiter since July 4, 2016, may have solved an ongoing mystery about the composition of the giant planet’s upper atmosphere; namely, the case of the missing ammonia. (Jupiter is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium but also contains trace amounts of ammonia, methane, and water vapor.) North and south of Jupiter’s equator, where the effects of the planet’s rapid 10-hour rotation create less mixing within the atmosphere, Juno had previously detected a curious lack of ammonia concentrations. As it turns out the ammonia is there, but it’s being trapped inside partially-frozen, hailstone-like structures nicknamed “mushballs”— and super-high-altitude lightning flashes are the telltale signs of their existence.
“We were struggling to explain the ammonia depletion with ammonia-water rain alone, but the rain couldn’t go deep enough to match the observations. I realized a solid, like a hailstone, might go deeper and take up more ammonia. When Heidi discovered shallow lightning, we realized we had evidence ...

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