Decoding the Atmosphere of Jupiter

A multitude of magnificent, swirling clouds in Jupiter's dynamic North North Temperate Belt is captured in this image from NASA's Juno spacecraft. Appearing in the scene are several bright-white "pop-up" clouds as well as an anticyclonic storm, known as a white oval.

Jupiter’s atmosphere is an enormous planetary atmosphere, the largest of its kind, in our Solar System. It is mainly composed of helium and molecular hydrogen in approximately solar proportions; other chemical compounds exist only in small amounts and include ammonia, methane, water, and hydrogen sulfide. Although water is estimated to reside deep in the air, its directly estimated concentration is deficient. The nitrogen, nitrogen, and noble gas abundances in Jupiter’s air exceed solar values by a factor of three.

Jupiter’s atmosphere lacks a sharp lower limit and slowly transitions into the liquid interior of the planet. From lowest to highest, the hazy layers are the four: troposphere, stratosphere, thermosphere and, exosphere. Each layer has specific temperature gradients. The lowest layer, the troposphere, has a complex cloud system and hazes, comprising layers of ammonium hydrosulfide, ammonia, and water. The upper ammonia clouds evident at Jupiter’s surface are prepared in a dozen zonal bands parallel to the equator and are surrounded by mighty zonal atmospheric flows (winds) known as jets. The bands alternate in color: the light bands are called a zone, while the dark ones are called belts. Zones, which are relatively colder than belts, correspond to upwellings, while belts mark falling gas.

The zones’ lighter color is considered to emerge from ammonia ice; what gives the belts their darker colors is unknown. The jets’ origins and banded structure are not well understood, though a “deep model” and a “shallow model” exist.

The Jovian environment shows a voluminous range of dynamic phenomena, including band instabilities, vortices (anticyclones and cyclones), lightning, and storms. The vortices reveal themselves as largely white, red, or brown spots (ovals). The most prominent two spots are the Oval BA, which is red, and Great Red Spot (GRS). These two and most of the other deep spots are anticyclonic. Smaller anticyclones are white. Vortices are estimated to be nearly shallow structures with depths not exceeding a few hundred kilometers. Situated in the southern hemisphere, the GRS is the enormous known vortex in our Solar System. It could sink two or three Earth and has lived for at least two hundred years. Oval BA GR’s south is a red spot, a third of the GRS size formed in 2000 CE from the merging of three white ovals.

Chemical composition

The two principal constituents of the Jovian atmosphere are helium and molecular hydrogen (H2). The helium quantity is 0.157 ± 0.004 relative to molecular hydrogen by several molecules, and its amazing mass fraction is 0.234 ± 0.005, which is somewhat lower than the Solar System’s known primordial value.

The air contains various compounds such as methane (CH4), water, ammonia (NH3), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and phosphine. Their abundances in the deep troposphere imply that Jupiter’s atmosphere is enriched in the elements nitrogen, sulfur, and oxygen. The noble gases krypton, argon, and xenon also seem in abundance relative to solar levels, while neon is exceedingly scarce.


Circulation in Jupiter’s atmosphere is considerably different from that in the Earth’s atmosphere. Jupiter’s interior is fluid and lacks any hard surface. Therefore, convection may transpire throughout the planet’s outer molecular envelope. The theories regarding the Jovian atmosphere dynamics can be broadly divided into two classes: shallow and deep. The former holds that the observed circulation is primarily confined to a thin outer layer of the planet, overlooking the stable interior. The latter hypothesis proposes that the detected atmospheric flows are only a surface display of deeply rooted circulation in the planet Jupiter’s outer molecular envelope.

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