Much of What We Thought About Jupiter Is Wrong

This enhanced-color composite photo shows Jupiter’s south pole from NASA’s Juno spacecraft 32,000 miles above the gas giant. The oval features are cyclones up to 600 miles wide.
This enhanced-color composite photo shows Jupiter’s south pole from NASA’s Juno spacecraft 32,000 miles above the gas giant. The oval features are cyclones up to 600 miles wide.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

Scientists have had time to study the data returned from the NASA spacecraft Juno and are discovering that pretty much everything they thought they knew about Jupiter’s interior is wrong. “I think we’re all sort of feeling the humility and humbleness,” said Scott Bolton, the principal investigator of Juno, during a press teleconference today, May 25. “It is making us rethink how giant planets work not only in our system but throughout the galaxy.”

The findings from Juno’s initial Jupiter orbits were published today in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters. The latter is a special issue devoted to Juno data and includes more than two dozen reports.

TEXAS-SIZED AMMONIA CYCLONES ARE ONLY THE BEGINNING

Juno, which launched in 2011 and entered Jupiter's orbit on July 4, 2016, is the first spacecraft to give scientists a real view of Jupiter’s poles, and what they’ve found is unlike anything expected.

“Jupiter from the poles doesn’t look anything like it does from the equator,” Bolton said.

Images reveal that Jupiter’s famous bands do not continue to the north and south poles. Rather, the poles are characterized by a bluish hue, chaotic swirls, and ovular features, which are Texas-sized ammonia cyclones. The precise mechanism behind them is unknown. Their stability is equally a mystery. As the Juno mission progresses, repeat visits to the poles and new data on the evolution of the cyclones will answer some of these questions.

The poles aren't identical, either. “The fact that the north and south pole don’t really look like each other is also a puzzle to us,” Bolton said.

One interesting observation was a happy accident. Because of Juno’s unique orbit, the spacecraft always crosses a terminator—that is, the line dividing where the planet is in full illumination of the Sun, and the far side, in total darkness. This is useful because topological relief can be seen at this line. (To see this in action, look through a telescope at a half-full moon. The shadows where light meets dark give a vivid sense of the heights of mountains and the depths of craters.) During an orbit, there happened to be a 4300-mile-wide storm at Jupiter’s terminator near the north pole, and scientists noticed shadows. The storm was towering over its cloud surroundings like a tornado on a Kansas prairie.

INTENSE PRESSURE SQUEEZES HYDROGEN INTO A METALLIC FLUID

Jupiter's core with metallic hydrogen fluid envelope
What may lie within the heart of Jupiter: a possible inner “rock” core surrounded by metallic hydrogen and an outer envelope of molecular hydrogen, all hidden beneath the visible cloud deck.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

Bolton explained that the goal of Juno is "looking inside Jupiter pretty much every way we know how.” Juno carries an instrument called a microwave radiometer, designed to see through Jupiter’s clouds and to collect data on the dynamics and composition of its deep atmosphere. (The instrument is sensitive to water and ammonia but is presently looking only at ammonia.) So far, the data are mystifying and wholly unexpected. Most scientists previously believed that just below the clouds, Jupiter’s atmosphere is well mixed. Juno has found just the opposite: that levels of ammonia vary greatly, and that the structure of the atmosphere does not match the visible zones and belts. Ammonia is emanating from great depths of the planet and driving weather systems.

Scientists still don’t know whether Jupiter has a core, or what it’s composed of if it exists. For insight, they’re studying the planet’s magnetosphere. Deep inside the gas giant, the pressure is so great that the element hydrogen has been squeezed into a metallic fluid. (Atmospheric pressure is measured in bars. Pressure at the surface of the Earth is one bar. On Jupiter, it’s 2 million. And at the core it would be around 40 million bars.) The movement of this liquid metallic hydrogen is thought by scientists to create the planet’s magnetic field. By studying the field, Juno can unlock the mysteries of the core’s depth, size, density, and even whether it exists, as predicted, as a solid rocky core. “We were originally looking for a compact core or no core,” Bolton said, “but we’re finding that it’s fuzzy—perhaps partially dissolved.”

Jupiter’s magnetosphere is the second-largest structure in the solar system, behind only the heliosphere itself. (The heliosphere is the total area influenced by the Sun. Beyond it is interstellar space.) So far, scientists are dumbfounded by the strength of the magnetic field close to the cloud tops—and by its deviations. “What we’ve found is that the magnetic field is both stronger than where we expected it to be strong, and weaker where we expected it to be weak,” said Jack Connerney, the deputy principal investigator of Juno.

Another paper today in Science revealed new findings about Jupiter’s auroras. The Earth’s auroras are Sun-driven, the result of the interaction of the solar winds and Earth’s magnetosphere. Jupiter’s auroras have been known for a while to be different, and related to the planet’s rotation. Juno has taken measurements of the magnetic field and charged particles causing the auroras, and has also taken the first images of the southern aurora. The processes at work are still unknown, but the takeaway is that the mechanics behind Jupiter’s auroras are unlike those of Earth, and call into question how Jupiter interacts with its environment in space.

JUNO ALREADY HAS US REWRITING THE TEXTBOOKS


An enhanced-color closeup of swirling waves of clouds, some just 4 miles across. Some of the small, bright high clouds seem to form squall lines, or a narrow band of high winds and storms associated with a cold front. They're likely composed of water and/or ammonia ice.
NASA/SWRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran

Understanding Jupiter is essential to understanding not only how our solar system formed, but how the new systems being discovered around stars form and operate as well. The next close approach of Jupiter will take place on July 11, when Juno flies directly over the famed Great Red Spot. Scientists hope to learn more about its depth, action, and drivers.

Juno already has us rewriting the textbooks, and it's only at the beginning of its orbital mission. It's slated to perform 33 polar orbits of Jupiter, each lasting 53.5 days. So far, it's completed only five. The spacecraft’s prime mission will end next year, at which time NASA will have to decide whether it can afford to extend the mission or to send Juno into the heart of Jupiter, where it will be obliterated. This self-destruct plunge would protect that region of space from debris and local, potentially habitable moons from contamination.

Bolton tells Mental Floss that the surprising findings really bring home the fact that to unlock Jupiter, this mission will need to be seen through to completion. “That’s what exciting about exploration: We’re going to a place we’ve never been before and making new discoveries … we’re just scratching the surface.” he says. “Juno is the right tool to do this. We have the right instruments. We have the right orbit. We’re going to win over this beast and learn how it works.”

Sssspectacular: Tree Snakes in Australia Can Actually Jump

sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images
sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images

Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes, is common among humans. We avoid snakes in the wild, have nightmares about snakes at night, and recoil at snakes on television. We might even be born with the aversion. When researchers showed babies photos of snakes and spiders, their tiny pupils dilated, indicating an arousal response to these ancestral threats.

If you really want to scare a baby, show them footage of an Australian tree snake. Thanks to researchers at Virginia Tech, we now know these non-venomous snakes of the genus Dendrelaphis can become airborne, propelling themselves around treetops like sentient Silly String.

That’s Dendrelaphis pictus, which was caught zipping through the air in 2010. After looking at footage previously filmed by her advisor Jake Socha, Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Michelle Graham headed for Australia and built a kind of American Ninja Warrior course for snakes out of PVC piping and tree branches. Graham observed that the snakes tend to spot their landing target, then spring upward. The momentum gets them across gaps that would otherwise not be practical to cross.

Graham next plans to investigate why snakes feel compelled to jump. They might feel a need to escape, or continue moving, or do it because they can. Two scientific papers due in 2020 could provide answers.

Dendrelaphis isn’t the only kind of snake with propulsive capabilities. The Chrysopelea genus includes five species found in Southeast Asia and China, among other places, that can glide through the air.

[h/t National Geographic]

9 Facts About Narcolepsy

Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images
Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone experiences occasional daytime sleepiness, but just a small fraction of the population knows what it’s like to have narcolepsy. The disorder is defined by persistent drowsiness throughout the day, and in some cases, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and the sudden loss of muscle control known as cataplexy. Having narcolepsy can make doing everyday activities difficult or dangerous for patients, but unlike some chronic conditions, it’s also easy to diagnose and treat. Here are some facts you should know about the condition.

1. There are two types of narcolepsy.

If everything you know about narcolepsy comes from movies and TV, you may think of it as the disease that causes people to go limp without warning. Sudden loss of muscle control is called cataplexy, and it’s the defining symptom of type 1 narcolepsy. Type 2 narcolepsy, on the other hand, is mainly characterized by fatigue. Losing motor function while awake isn’t a problem for those with type 2.

2. Type 1 narcolepsy stems from a chemical deficiency.

Almost every patient with type 1 narcolepsy has low levels of hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical that regulates the wake-sleep cycle. When there isn’t enough of this chemical in the brain, people have trouble staying conscious and alert throughout the day. Most people with the second, less severe type of narcolepsy have normal hypocretin levels, with about a third of them producing low or undetectable amounts. Type 2 narcoplepsy has been studied far less than type 1 of the disorder, and scientists are still figuring out what causes it.

3. The exact causes of narcolepsy aren’t always clear.

So why do some people’s brains produce less hypocretin than others? That part has been hard for scientists to figure out. One possible explanation is that certain autoimmune disorders cause the body to attack the healthy brain cells that make this chemical. This disorder can be the result of genetic and environmental factors. Although people with narcolepsy rarely pass it down to their offspring (this happens less than 1 percent of the time), the sleep condition does occasionally crop up in family clusters, suggesting there is sometimes a genetic component at play. Head trauma that impacts the area of the brain responsible for governing sleep can also lead to narcolepsy in rare cases.

4. There are tests to diagnose narcolepsy.

If patients believe they might have narcolepsy, their doctors might ask them to detail their sleep history and keep a record of their sleep habits. There are also a few tests potential narcoleptics can take to determine if they have the condition. During a polysomnography test, patients spend the night at a medical facility with electrodes attached to their heads to monitor their breathing, eye movement, and brain activity. A multiple sleep latency test is similar, except it gauges how long it takes patients to fall asleep during the day.

5. Strong emotions can trigger cataplexy.

Cataplectic spells can sometimes be predicted by triggers. In some patients, feeling strong emotions—whether they’re crying, laughing, angry, or stressed—is all it takes for them to lose muscle control. These triggers vary from patient to patient, and they can even affect the same person randomly. Some people deal with them by avoiding certain situations and closing themselves off emotionally, which can disrupt their social lives.

6. Narcolepsy can make sleep terrifying.

Narcoleptics don’t just worry about their disorder during their waking hours. When they’re trying to fall asleep at night or wake up in the morning, narcolepsy can complicate things. One symptom is experiencing vivid, dream-like hallucinations while transitioning in or out of consciousness. These visions are often scary and may involve an intruder in the room with the sleeper. If they happen as the patient falls asleep, the hallucinations are called hypnagogic, and if they occur as they wake up, they’re hypnopompic.

A related symptom is sleep paralysis. This happens when a person’s brain cuts off muscle control of their body before they’re fully asleep or as they’re waking up. This combined with hypnagogic or hypnopompic nightmares can cause frightening experiences that are sometimes confused for real encounters.

7. Narcoleptics sometimes do activities half-asleep.

To outside observers, narcolepsy is sometimes hard to spot. A narcoleptic patient overcome by sleepiness won’t necessarily pass out in the middle of what they’re doing. Some act out “automatic behavior,” which means they continue with their actions—whether that’s walking, driving, or typing—with limited consciousness. This can cause poor performance at work or school, and in worst case scenarios, accidents while driving a car or operating machinery.

8. Harriet Tubman may have had narcolepsy.

One of the most famous likely narcoleptics in history is Harriet Tubman. The African American abolitionist was known to suffer from what were probably sudden narcoleptic episodes. The condition may have stemmed from the severe head trauma she sustained when a slave master threw an iron at another slave and hit her instead. The injury left her with permanent brain damage: In addition to narcolepsy, she also experienced chronic seizures and migraines throughout her life.

9. Medications and lifestyle changes are common narcolepsy treatments.

Though there’s no way to cure narcolepsy completely, there are many treatment options available. Taking medication is one of the most common ways to manage the disorder. Stimulants such as modafinil and armodafinil can be used to combat mild sleepiness, while amphetamines are often prescribed for more severe forms of fatigue. For hallucinations and sleep paralysis, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors—drugs that suppress REM sleep—can help.

As an alternative or supplementary treatment to medications, doctors may recommend lifestyle changes. Sticking to a sleep schedule, exercising regularly, avoiding nicotine and alcohol, and taking naps during the day can all reduce the symptoms of narcolepsy.

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