Tech Physicists Explore Atmospheric Phenomena in Outer Planets

SOCORRO, N.M. January 7, 2016 – Physics associate professor Raúl Morales-Juberías made plenty of headlines last fall after publishing an explanation for a strange hexagonal phenomenon on Saturn.

Morales-Juberías published his findings in the Astrophysical Journal Letters in June. In August the article was highlighted in the American Astronomical Society NOVA website, and in late September, the study had been featured in various popular media outlets, such as Space.com, the Daily Mail, EScienceNews.com and many other major news outlets.


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 Rick Cosentino, doctoral student, (left) and Dr. Raul Morales-Juberias.


“I was surprised when they told me about the AAS NOVA highlight,” he said. “I knew it was interesting, but I didn’t realize it’d be so interesting to so many people.”


Click here for the AAS Nova article.  


This feature is associated with an atmospheric jet stream flowing rapidly towards the east, and its rotation rate is very nearly close to that of the planet. While previous laboratory experiments and numerical models had been able to reproduce polygonal patterns associated with jet flows, the paper by Morales-Juberías was the first one to present a model that captured the main observed properties of Saturn’s Hexagon.

Physics Ph.D. candidate Rick Cosentino working with professor Morales-Juberías also published a paper in the Astrophysical Journal Letters in August about the observations and modeling of another wave feature, this time in Jupiter. Unlike Saturn’s Hexagon, this Jovian wave is at a much lower latitude in the planet and therefore is easier to observe with space telescopes. For this study they used Voyager, Cassini and Hubble Space Telescope data to constrain the properties of the wave. This wave is also associated with an atmospheric jet, but unlike Saturn’s hexagon, the jet where the wave resides is slower, and it flows towards the west. The characteristics of the waves are also very different, since unlike the hexagon, it does not have a well-defined wavenumber. In their paper they present the observed properties of this wave, as well as models that explain how such a wave may form.

“Investigating planetary atmospheres in a comparative way is at the intersection of atmospheric physics and astronomy. The atmospheres of the Giant Planets in the Solar System are natural laboratories to explore atmospheric physics under different conditions to those of Earth, and they also represent the stepping stone to understand the atmospheres of extra-solar planets” Morales-Juberías said.  

Upgrades to the Very Large Array make it possible to use radio astronomy to look into the atmosphere of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn with more detail than ever before, which could provide more data relevant to their research. Morales-Juberías is also part of a collaboration with NMSU and NASA centers in the JIVE project, which stands for Jovian Image Velocimetry Experiment, which will measure Jupiter’s 2-D wind fields from telescopes at Apache Point Observatory. That data will help them further refine their models and their understanding of the atmospheres of these planets.

– NMT –