Jupiter is famous for its Great Red Spot, a storm so large it could fully envelop the Earth. And much like our own, Jupiter’s atmosphere is dynamic and ever-changing.
Using data and imaging from the James Webb Space Telescope, which is operated out of the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus, astronomers have discovered that Jupiter has a jet stream near its equator.
The jet stream spans more than 3,000 miles and is above the planet’s main cloud decks, according to the institute.
A jet stream is a fast and narrow air current in the atmosphere. They’re found on multiple planets in the solar system, including Earth. Its discovery may not be as visually striking as the famous Great Red Spot, but it gives researchers insight into how Jupiter’s atmosphere works and how they can use the Webb telescope in the future, the institute said.
Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, has been known since ancient times and was first observed in detail in the 1600s by none other than Galileo Galilei. The imaging that scientists used to uncover the jet stream were taken by the Webb telescope last year.
“It’s amazing to me that, after years of tracking Jupiter’s clouds and winds from numerous observatories, we still have more to learn about Jupiter, and features like this jet can remain hidden from view until these new NIRCam [near infrared] images were taken in 2022,” said Leigh Fletcher, a member of the team that made the discovery.
Ricardo Hueso, the lead author of the study, said the findings “totally surprised” the team.
The jet stream is located about 25 miles above Jupiter’s clouds, and travels at about 320 mph — twice the sustained speed of Category 5 hurricanes on Earth.
The scientists used the near-infrared imaging and data from Webb and compared that to earlier observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope and other space satellites to determine the wind speed, according to the Space Telescope Science Institute.
And, the researchers said, they should be able to use future observations from the Webb and Hubble telescopes to learn whether the jet stream changes in speed or altitude over time. Jupiter, they said, has a “complicated but repeatable pattern of winds and temperatures” in its atmosphere.
When NASA released the images taken of Jupiter last year, the agency highlighted Webb’s ability to showcase the planet’s rings and auroras.
Other recent findings from Webb include an “ethereal” image of a part of the universe where stars are being born, and the detection of carbon — a key ingredient for organic life — on one of Jupiter’s moons.