It’s reasonable to think that Jupiter—a gaseous planet more than 11 times the diameter of Earth—would have little in common with our home. But it turns out that the motion of fluids on both planets is governed by the same laws of physics. An eddy on Earth looks a lot like an eddy on Jupiter.
The similarities are especially evident in these images showing swirls in Jupiter’s atmosphere and in Earth’s Baltic Sea. “This is all about fluids moving around on a rotating body,” said Norman Kuring of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Kuring described the patterns of flow as a combination of laminar (following a smooth path) and turbulent (uneven and chaotic). Flows can be characterized using numbers named for famous physicists, such as Reynolds, Rossby, and Rayleigh. But you don’t need a textbook knowledge of fluid dynamics to appreciate its consequences.
“Out of all the complexity flows beauty, whether it be images of Earth, Jupiter, or your coffee cup when you pour in the cream,” Kuring said.
Scientists think Jupiter has three distinct cloud layers. The left image shows ammonia-rich clouds swirling in the planet’s outermost layer. Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran created the image using data acquired by the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft in December 2018. They applied a series of image processing steps to highlight details that would be difficult for the human eye to discern.
According to Alberto Adriani, a Juno mission co-investigator from the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology, the eddies in Jupiter’s clouds reflect disturbances in the atmosphere caused by the planet’s fast rotation and by higher temperatures deeper in the atmosphere. He compares the phenomenon to rapidly rotating a fluid while boiling it.
The patterns in Jupiter’s atmosphere appear similar to those in Earth’s oceans. The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired the second image on July 18, 2018. This natural-color image shows a green phytoplankton bloom tracing the edges of a vortex in the Baltic Sea. In this medium—Earth’s ocean—turbulent processes are important for moving heat, carbon, and nutrients around the planet. Models that accurately represent these processes are critical for understanding weather in the air and sea.
While scientists continue exploring the complexities of Earth’s oceans, astronomers are learning more about Jupiter’s complex composition—important for understanding how our solar system and other solar systems formed.
“In interpreting what we see elsewhere in the solar system and universe, we always compare with phenomena that we already know of on Earth,” Kuring said. “We work from the familiar toward the unknown.”
NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Jupiter Juno imagery courtesy of NASA/SwRI/MSSS via Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran. Story by Kathryn Hansen.