Going In the Clouds for Modeling Research

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As we learn in basic astronomy, planets are not the same. The same applies to their clouds. On Earth, the fluffy white clouds in the sky made of water or ice crystals differ from clouds on other planets. On the gas giant Jupiter, the swirled, marbled clouds contain ammonia, ammonium hydrosulfide and water.

These differences cause issues in the models we use to try to better understand different planets. However, new Florida Tech research is helping us better model the clouds themselves, and in turn understand the characteristics that come along with them.

Florida Tech aerospace, physics and space sciences associate professor Csaba Palotai and his team of graduate students are focusing on numerical modeling of planetary atmospheres with his latest research grant, A New Tool for Studying Jupiter’s Clouds, Storms and Vorticies. The $306,428 NASA-funded grant will help create accurate modeling of Jupiter, along with carrying forward the longstanding goal of planetary atmosphere research which is to ultimately understand the processes that are driving the features that scientists observe.

It is known that the interior of Jupiter is very hot, and this heat is being released slowly. One of the theories is that this heat release drives convection in the deep atmosphere (where water clouds form) and helps to drive the formation of large water storms. For the last two decades, most of the work in this field has generally agreed that the energy release in these storms is comparable to what Palotai and his team would expect the internal heat of Jupiter to be – but no one has modelled the cloud formation explicitly to show that these convective storms do indeed match the observed features. With this research, the team is analyzing if and/or how these water-based storms can form, their structure, and whether they can contribute to the features that are observed on Jupiter.

In order to better understand the clouds’ properties, Palotai is creating a module in numerical code to simulate actual clouds on Jupiter. He noted that other models resembled Jupiter, but without directly modeling clouds there is an “apples-to-oranges” comparison. The more realistic model detailing the clouds and planet will allow Palotai to look at what the planet’s clouds look like as well as examine the energy source of jet streams on the planet, which may come from latent heating cloud processes or from another heating source from moisture connection.

During this process, Palotai has encountered challenges in creating accurate Jupiter cloud models based on other planetary models. However, Palotai said the accurate images created by students will help provide accurate models of the planet.

After the modeling research, the team is looking to present these results in a way that can be useful to the atmospheric science community so that it is easier to interpret these results from telescope and spacecraft observations. They also want to use radiative transfer code to create a synthetic image of Jupiter in different bands, so that they can directly match features to corresponding processes, such as bright features in some wavelengths that might correspond to high altitude clouds.

Palotai also hopes to study a specific region of Jupiter containing a powerful jet stream that is stronger than hurricane-force winds. By modeling that region, Palotai and his team will look at how the moisture convection contributes to the jet stream’s power. Palotai also noted plans to study Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot, a persistent high-pressure region that produces an anticyclonic storm.

“I think that will be interesting to see how the cloud processes and the moisture convection contributes to the generation, maintenance and dissipation of such atmospheric features,” he said. “There are a hundred other applications to this, but I think this would be the next logical step.”

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I write and record video about research at Florida Tech. For any inquiries, contact me at 321-674-8937 or rrandall@fit.edu.

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