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.”

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

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