NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has discovered a new, never-before-seen feature in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The high-speed jet stream, which spans more than 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) wide, sits over Jupiter’s equator above the main cloud decks. The discovery of this jet is giving insights into how the layers of Jupiter’s famously turbulent atmosphere interact with each other, and how Webb is uniquely capable of tracking those features.
“This is something that totally surprised us,” said Ricardo Hueso of the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain, lead author on the paper describing the findings. “What we have always seen as blurred hazes in Jupiter’s atmosphere now appear as crisp features that we can track along with the planet’s fast rotation.”
The research team analyzed data from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) captured in July 2022. The Early Release Science program — jointly led by Imke de Pater from the University of California, Berkeley and Thierry Fouchet from the Observatory of Paris — was designed to take images of Jupiter 10 hours apart, or one Jupiter day, in four different filters, each uniquely able to detect changes in small features at different altitudes of Jupiter’s atmosphere.
“Even though various ground-based telescopes, spacecraft like NASA’s Juno and Cassini, and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have observed the Jovian system’s changing weather patterns, Webb has already provided new findings on Jupiter’s rings, satellites, and its atmosphere,” de Pater noted.
While Jupiter is different from Earth in many ways — Jupiter is a gas giant, Earth is a rocky, temperate world — both planets have layered atmospheres. Infrared, visible, radio, and ultraviolet light wavelengths observed by these other missions detect the lower, deeper layers of the planet’s atmosphere — where gigantic storms and ammonia ice clouds reside.
On the other hand, Webb’s look farther into the near-infrared than before is sensitive to the…