Astrophysicists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Gordon L. Bjoraker have moved one step closer to answering the question of whether there is water in Jupiter's atmosphere.
By looking from ground-based telescopes at wavelengths sensitive to thermal radiation leaking from the depths of Jupiter's persistent storm, the Great Red Spot, Bjoraker and his team detected the chemical signatures of water above the planet's deepest clouds.
The pressure of the water, the researchers concluded, combined with their measurements of another oxygen-bearing gas, carbon monoxide, imply that Jupiter has two to nine times more oxygen than the sun. This finding supports theoretical and computer-simulation models that have predicted abundant water on Jupiter, made of oxygen tied up with molecular hydrogen.
The experiment could have failed, as Jupiter's Great Red Spot is full of dense clouds, which makes it hard for electromagnetic energy to escape and teach astronomers anything about the chemistry within.
"It turns out they're not so thick that they block our ability to see deeply," said Bjoraker. "That's been a pleasant surprise."
New spectroscopic technology gave the team a boost in peering deep inside Jupiter. "We thought, well, let's just see what's out there," Bjoraker added.
The data they collected will supplement the information NASA's Juno spacecraft is gathering as it circles the planet from north to south, once every 53 days.
Juno is also looking for water with its own infra-red spectrometer and with a microwave radiometer that can probe deeper than anyone has seen - 100 times the atmospheric pressure at Earth's surface.
If Juno returns similar water findings, thereby backing Bjoraker's ground-based technique, it could open a new window into solving the water problem, said Goddard's Amy Simon, a planetary atmospheres expert.
"If it works, then maybe we can apply it elsewhere, like Saturn, Uranus or Neptune, where we don't have a Juno," she said.
Juno is the latest spacecraft tasked with finding water on Jupiter, likely in gas form, on this giant planet. It could also help scientists learn more about how our solar system formed, and even about how other solar systems have developed.
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