23 Dec 2015

Simulating Jet Streams on Jupiter

Simulating Jet steams on Jupiter from Richard Pearson on Vimeo.

A University of Alberta researcher has successfully generated 3-D simulations of deep jet streams and storms on Jupiter and Saturn, helping to satiate our eternal quest for knowledge of planetary dynamics. The results facilitate a deeper understanding of planetary weather and provide clues to the dynamics of Earth’s weather patterns evidenced in jet streams and ocean currents.

“Since the pioneering telescope observations of Giovanni Cassini in the mid-17th century, stargazers have wondered about the bands and spots of Jupiter,” says Moritz Heimpel, a physics professor at the U of A whose study produced the simulations of the observable phenomena. The bands he references indicate jet streams while the spots signify storms; Heimpel is studying the dynamics between the two.

“At its core, our research is curiosity-based, and our ideas are driven by observations.” —Moritz Heimpel

“The average citizen can now pick up a backyard telescope and see the structures that we write about today. However, even in the present age with the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn and the Juno craft approaching Jupiter, there is considerable debate about the dynamics of the atmospheres of the giant planets.” Heimpel notes that despite 350 years of observation, the origin and dynamics of planetary jet streams and vortices or planetary storms remain debated.

Shallow weather layer simulations have struggled to adequately reproduce the jet streams on Jupiter and Saturn, and previous deep-flow models have not reproduced vortices. Heimpel and his colleagues have taken this challenge to the next level, using fluid dynamics equations and supercomputers to produce more realistic simulations that give insight into the origin of both features. 
“One of the big questions we have is how deep these structures go,” says Heimpel. “These storms are embedded in these jet streams, and there’s no solid surface to stop them. Our simulations imply that the jet streams plunge deep into the interior, while the storms are rather shallow.” 

Unlike great storms on Earth, which eventually lose steam after encountering land mass, planetary storms can continue for centuries.

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