Jupiter Is Changing Its Colors And Astronomers Are Wondering Why

Astronomers were surprised after what used to be a familiar planet appeared with a new look. Jupiter changed the color of its stripes and some of its famous swirls. 

Something strange happened on the largest planet in the solar system that triggered the changes. A new study found that storm clouds formed in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which affected its white zones and belts.

The storms created disturbances in their flow and color, which gave the planet a new look. Researchers used data gathered through NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and telescopes on Earth. 

The storms appeared as bright plumes on the cake-like belts on Jupiter in 2017. Researchers explained the plumes interacted with strong winds, which expanded the planet’s belts and changed their color from white to orangish brown.

“If these plumes are vigorous and continue to have convective events, they may disturb one of these entire bands over time, though it may take a few months,” Imke de Pater, lead researcher and a professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. “With these observations, we see one plume in progress and the aftereffects of the others.”

The findings support previous research that suggested the plumes come from the area of clouds carrying liquid water droplets. The researchers hope the study will guide future efforts aimed at understanding the complex atmospheric dynamics on Jupiter. 

Understanding How Jupiter Changes Color

The planet’s atmosphere contains high levels of hydrogen and helium. Methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and water are also present above the surface. Jupiter’s top-most cloud layer gives its colorful appearance, including the brown belts and white swirls.

Astronomers spotted the bright plumes that changed Jupiter’s colors in January 2017. The storm clouds appeared like the cumulonimbus clouds on Earth. 

The study backs a theory, called moist convection, which explains how plumes form. It suggests that the combination of ammonia and water vapor in the atmosphere helps form liquid droplets.

Condensing water in the clouds then produces heat that causes the clouds to expand and rise to higher cloud layers. The plumes then break through ammonia ice clouds, appearing on top of the atmosphere.

The new storm clouds push gas into the deeper atmosphere, which cause Jupiter’s belts and swirls to expand and change colors.  

Jupiter ALMA image showing the distribution of ammonia gas below Jupiter's cloud deck. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), I de Pater/UC Berkeley et al.; NRAO/AUI NSF, S. Dagnello