Jupiter has a new cyclone, and it's massive. NASA's Jupiter spacecraft discovered the storm during a recent data-gathering flyby. According to NASA, the solar-powered probe discovered the cyclone during its 22nd flyby in early November to collect data on the gas giant, soaring just 2,175 miles above its clouds.
In addition to the discovery of the storm, NASA's team managed to keep the spacecraft clear of an eclipse, which would have ended the mission. Without enough sunlight, the probe could suffer the same fate as the Mars Opportunity rover, which lost connection after a dust storm blocked the sun's rays from reaching its solar panels.
Luckily, the team managed to "jump Jupiter's shadow" and discover the new tempest in the process.
"The combination of creativity and analytical thinking has once again paid off big time for NASA," said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "We realized that the orbit was going to carry Juno into Jupiter's shadow, which could have grave consequences because we're solar powered. No sunlight means no power, so there was real risk we might freeze to death."
Juno first discovered nine cyclones in the north and six in the south when it arrived at Jupiter in July 2016. Additional flybys confirmed that five of the windstorms were swirling around a central storm about the size of the United States in the south pole, with no new storms entering the pattern.
"It almost appeared like the polar cyclones were part of a private club that seemed to resist new members," said Bolton.
But now, a new cyclone has joined the exclusive squad, taking the pattern from a pentagon to a hexagon. NASA scientists said the young storm is about the size of Texas.
Data from Juno's Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) suggest the cyclone's wind speeds average 225 miles per hour, similar to the other cyclones near it. Scientists will have to wait and see if the storm grows to be the size of its neighbors.
"These cyclones are new weather phenomena that have not been seen or predicted before," said Cheng Li, a Juno scientist from the University of California, Berkeley. "Nature is revealing new physics regarding fluid motions and how giant planet atmospheres work. We are beginning to grasp it through observations and computer simulations. Future Juno flybys will help us further refine our understanding by revealing how the cyclones evolve over time."
Juno will continue to orbit and collect data on Jupiter until the mission's end in July 2021.