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Solving Jupiter’s Mysteries
By Bill Hoagland
Do you know someone you just can’t figure out? Someone with lots of quirky mysteries? For me, Planet Jupiter in our own solar system falls into that category of human personalities; it is loaded with strange things going on that, for centuries, have defied our ability to fully comprehend.
Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and located more than 500 million miles from Earth—and much further from the sun than we are. For centuries, astronomers have been fascinated with Jupiter despite the fact that it is enshrouded with a thick cloud cover that has prevented us from seeing Jupiter’s surface. In fact, it is fitting that this planet was named Jupiter because in Roman mythology, Jupiter was a mythical god who intentionally wrapped himself in veils so as to hide what he was doing “under cover.” But despite Jupiter’s thick cloud cover, we can see that there are some mysterious things happening on and around Jupiter.
Let’s start with “The Great Red Spot.” In 1665, Geovanni Cassini, an Italian astronomer, discovered that on the surface of Jupiter, there appeared to be a large, red spot on the surface of the planet—in essence, a hurricane type of storm in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. And guess what? Nearly four hundred years later, “The Great Red Spot” is still in essentially the same location, constantly swirling in a counter-clockwise motion, the exact opposite of hurricane behavior here on Earth. But there is more: the area closest to the center of The Great Red Spot is actually moving faster than the outer portions of this storm–perhaps in excess of 400 miles per hour. It is a huge storm, estimated to have a width two or three times the size of Earth. For all we know, The Great Red Spot has been suspended and spinning there at 400 miles per hour for thousands of years in the same location. And we really have no explanation for this.
Then we have the issue as to whether Jupiter has a core similar to what we have on Earth. It might not. It might be composed, throughout, with gasses instead of a rock base. There is evidence that some portions of Jupiter have a gravitational pull and other portions do not, leading some astronomers to think the core of Jupiter could be “squishy;” that’s right: the largest planet in our solar system might have a core with the consistency of a campfire-marshmallow.
The clouds surrounding Jupiter appear to consist of ammonia and water that are floating in an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium—not exactly my idea of a great place to raise kids. Because of the ever-present cloud cover, we can’t be certain but it also appears that Jupiter is doing a complete rotation on its axis once every 10 hours; that is carnival-ride fast and fast enough to keep Jupiter off your bucket list unless you really enjoy the ups and downs of motion sickness.
Jupiter has 80 moons at last count and some of these moons have their own mysteries to contemplate. For example, some moons orbit other moons; some have evidence of ice and thus oxygen; and one moon has active volcanos that can be seen spouting gases into the atmosphere. In case you are wondering why a moon so far out in our solar system could possibly have active volcanos, it is believed to be the result of the give and take of gravitational pulls between Jupiter and some of its other moons, but really, it is just another mystery in a long line of mysteries. (BTW, can you imagine 80 moons circling planet Earth? The coyotes would go nuts trying to decide which moon to howl at, wouldn’t they?)
Over the years, there have been nine spacecrafts probing Jupiter to answer these mysteries, including one spacecraft, the Juno Orbiter, that has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 and that will continue to orbit Jupiter until 2025. But now we have the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that since July has been periodically focused on Jupiter and its moons; the images that have resulted are truly amazing. You can even see violent lightning storms in the atmosphere of Jupiter and colorful auroras at both the north and south poles. This is due in large part to the fact that the JWST is utilizing three infrared lenses to process what it is seeing; the use of infrared lenses allows us to see images we humans would not be able to see with the naked eye as this exploration continues. So stay tuned to the JWST web site and enjoy the ride as we whittle away at some but not all of the mysteries of Jupiter.
■ Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.