Image: Close-up of Jupiter's Great Red Spot
Close-up of Jupiter's Great Red Spot as seen by a Voyager spacecraft.
updated 8/10/2011 3:35:02 PM ET 2011-08-10T19:35:02

On a rooftop in downtown Atlanta, a group of scientists are cooking up alien atmospheres. Their results will help astronomers understand the data that NASA's Juno spacecraft will send back from Jupiter in 2016.

Jupiter's cloudy bands and Great Red Spot are visible with an amateur telescope. But the elements that compose them are more challenging to detect.

The Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5, and will spend the next five years journeying to Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. Using myriad instruments, the craft is expected to help scientists come to a greater understanding of the origins and composition of the gas giant. [Photos: NASA's Juno Mission to Jupiter]

Cooking up an atmosphere
As the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter was most likely the first to form from the gas and dust that once circled the young sun. Details about its past provide clues to the early history and formation of other planets, including Earth.

But the planet has closely guarded the secrets of its atmosphere. Jupiter's radiation belts block the lower-frequency radio waves that provide details about of the lower atmosphere. Juno will overcome this problem by utilizing a path that avoids these belts.

When Juno reaches Jupiter, its Microwave Radiometer will study the planet's atmosphere in depth. Each of its six frequencies will penetrate the atmosphere, which is more than 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) thick, to a different depth. This will allow the spacecraft to return details about the atmosphere at various heights. [How NASA's Juno Mission to Jupiter Works (Infographic)]

But without something to compare the readings to, the signal will be indecipherable.

That's where the simulator, which is essentially a pressurized oven, comes into play. Gases are assembled at a range of temperatures and pressures within, and scientists can then measure a variety of conditions that Juno is expected to record on Jupiter.

"We can mix together different 'recipes' for the Jovian atmosphere and place them in our simulator," Paul Steffes of Georgia Institute of Technology told in an email interview.

Steffes and his team have created over 5,000 different simulations of gases, changing temperatures and pressures to greatly resemble those that might be found on Jupiter. Each of these potential signals is being recorded for reference later. When Juno begins broadcasting the details of the planet's cloud layers, scientists will be able to match the spacecraft's findings with the simulated conditions to determine the true atmospheric composition in various locations and mixtures across the planet.

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The simulations have already helped scientists identify the atmospheres of other planets.

"Our results have been used in interpreting radio measurements from Cassini at Saturn, and even older measurements made with Voyager at Uranus and Neptune," Steffes said.

Peering through Jovian mists
Key among the questions scientists hope to answer is how much water vapor is present in Jupiter's atmosphere. This would help scientists understand how water survived the hydrogen-rich solar system.

Previous reports of water on Jupiter have been conflicting.

When the Comet Shoemaker-Levy smashed into Jupiter's surface, it kicked up oxygen that indicated water in the atmosphere might be plentiful.

But, later data seemed to contradict these findings.

"In 1995, the Galileo probe detected some water on Jupiter," Steffes said. "But the location was thought to be a very dry one, and not representative of the entire planet."

The amounts returned were less than astronomers expected to find.

Since then, astronomers have struggled to determine just how much water vapor is in Jupiter's air, but so far, the search has been without success. This should change once Juno enters into orbit around Jupiter.

Using the references created by the atmosphere simulator, Juno's MWR will not only find the water, it will also be able to determine its altitude.

"The real question Juno MWR will address is the global inventory of water," Steffes said. "This will be key to understanding the process by which Jupiter was formed."

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Photos: Jewels from Jupiter

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  1. Jupiter loses a stripe

    The weather on Jupiter is changeable, as these before-and-after pictures show. The photograph on the left shows Jupiter as seen in June 2009. The photo on the right, taken on May 9, 2010, reveals that one of the planet's prominent dark cloud belts has faded away. The lightening of the South Equatorial Belt is due to atmospheric changes. Both pictures were taken by Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer in Australia. (Anthony Wesley via The Planetary Society) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Family portrait

    Launched in 1989, the Galileo spacecraft has photographed Jupiter as well as several of the giant planet's satellites. Here's a montage that shows Jupiter's Great Red Spot and the four largest moons. From top, they are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cratered Callisto

    Callisto is considered the most cratered celestial body in the solar system. The false-color overlay at right exaggerates the moon's surface features, including the Valhalla impact structure near the center of the disk. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dark face

    Colors are enhanced in this view of Ganymede's trailing hemisphere, highlighting the moon's polar caps. The violet color indicates where small particles of frost may be scattering light on the blue end of the spectrum. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Cloudy weather

    The mosaic at left shows the true colors of the cloud patterns in Jupiter's northern hemisphere. The rendition at right uses false colors to represent the height and thickness of the cloud cover. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. This is the Spot

    A true-color picture captures the subtle shadings of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a massive, long-lived storm system in the planet's thick atmosphere. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A big splash on Europa

    A computer-generated perspective view shows the Pwyll impact crater on Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. The heights are exaggerated, but the central peak indicates that the crater may have been modified shortly after its formation by the flow of underlying warm ice. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A blast at Io

    This image of Io, thought to be the solar system's most volcanically active world, shows the plumes of two eruptions. One plume can be seen at the very edge of the disk, the other is puffing up from the dark volcanic ring near the center of the disk. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lava light

    An active volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io flares in an image taken in February 2000 by the Galileo spacecraft. The dark L-shaped lava flow to the left of center marks the site of energetic eruptions in November 1999 at Tvashtar Catena, which is a chain of giant volcanic calderas. The two small bright spots at left side of image are sites where molten rock is exposed to the surface at the toes of lava flows. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Crazy quilt

    The thin crust of Europa's Conamara region is criss-crossed by craters, cracks and lines - indicating that the surface ice was repeatedly disrupted. The colors, which are enhanced in this view, show where light ice crystals and dark contaminants have settled onto the surface. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A moving moon

    In a picture taken in April 2001 by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, the moon Io looks like a marble set against the background of Jupiter. Io is the giant planet's third-largest satellite. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Anthony Wesley via The Planetary Society
    Above: Slideshow (11) Jewels of Jupiter
  2. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Video: NASA launches Juno spacecraft

  1. Transcript of: NASA launches Juno spacecraft

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: The space shuttle program may be over, but NASA is still sending rockets into the final frontier. The unmanned Juno spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force station today on its way to Jupiter . It will be a long trip, 400 million miles, and Juno is expected to settle into Jupiter 's orbit in July 2016 on a mission to study the huge planet structure, magnetic field and atmosphere.


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