New data from Nasa spacecraft ‘challenges our understanding of how the solar system works’, scientists announce

Data is 'unlike anything we have ever seen before', says expert

Andrew Griffin@_andrew_griffin
Wednesday 06 March 2019 20:36

New data from Nasa spacecraft has challenged our understanding of how the solar system works, scientists have announced.

The new findings – based on data sent back by the Juno and Cassini spacecraft from giant gas planets Jupiter and Saturn – challenge our understanding of how solar systems form and behave, say researchers.

The detailed magnetic and gravity data is "invaluable but also confounding", according to the researchers responsible. They are "unlike anything we have ever seen before", said one, who explained that "any explanation for this has to be unorthodox".

"A successful mission is one that surprises us," said Caltech scientist David Stevenson, who presented the findings. "Science would be boring if it merely confirmed what we previously thought," he said.

The new findings come from two spacecraft: Cassini and Juno. Cassini spent 13 years orbiting Saturn before it killed itself by diving towards into it in 2017, and Juno has been orbiting Jupiter for the last two-and-a-half years.

Taken together, the research seems to challenge existing ideas about the solar system and will help enlighten future ones.

"Although there are puzzles yet to be explained, this is already clarifying some of our ideas about how planets form, how they make magnetic fields and how the winds blow," Stevenson said.

Using instruments on board Juno, for instance, scientists were able to look at microwaves to explore the atmosphere around the planets. It shows that, surprisingly, the atmosphere is evenly mixed in a way they had not expected.

"Any explanation for this has to be unorthodox," Stevenson said.

It could be that the strange atmosphere is formed by weather events that are concentrating large amounts of ice, liquids and gas across the atmosphere. But it is still not clear.

Other instruments on Juno have sent back strange data about its gravitational and magnetic properties. Jupiter seems to have unexplained spots where the magnetic field is either unusually high or low, and it is very different across the northern and southern hemisphere.

"It's unlike anything we have seen before," Stevenson said.

Scientists also found from gravity data that inside Jupiter – which is at least 90 per cent hydrogen and helium – there are also much heavier elements, which amount to more than 10 times the mass of Earth. But they are not squashed into one core and are instead mixed in with the hydrogen above, which is found in the form of a metallic liquid.

And the data also gave new information about the outer parts of both planets. The amount of heavier elements there is uncertain, but the outer layers are playing much more of a role in the magnetic field than the scientists had expected.

Researchers now hope to mimic their pressures and temperatures on Earth, in an attempt to understand what is happening on the planets themselves.

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