NASA Uncovers Amount of Water in Jupiter’s Atmosphere

An accurate estimate of the total amount of water in Jupiter's atmosphere has been on the wish lists of planetary scientists for decades

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran.

NASA’s Juno mission has provided its first science results on the amount of water in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Published recently in the journal Nature Astronomy, the Juno results estimate that at the equator, water makes up about 0.25% of the molecules in Jupiter’s atmosphere—almost three times that of the Sun. These are also the first findings on the gas giant’s abundance of water since the agency’s 1995 Galileo mission suggested Jupiter might be extremely dry compared to the Sun (the comparison is based not on liquid water but on the presence of its components, oxygen and hydrogen, present in the Sun).

An accurate estimate of the total amount of water in Jupiter’s atmosphere has been on the wish lists of planetary scientists for decades: The figure in the gas giant represents a critical missing piece to the puzzle of our solar system’s formation. Jupiter was likely the first planet to form, and it contains most of the gas and dust that wasn’t incorporated into the Sun.

The leading theories about its formation rest on the amount of water the planet soaked up. Water abundance also has important implications for the gas giant’s meteorology (how wind currents flow on Jupiter) and internal structure. While lightning—a phenomenon typically fueled by moisture—detected on Jupiter by Voyager and other spacecraft implied the presence of water, an accurate estimate of the amount of water deep within Jupiter’s atmosphere remained elusive.

Before the Galileo probe stopped transmitting 57 minutes into its Jovian descent in December 1995, it radioed out spectrometer measurements of the amount of water in the gas giant’s atmosphere down to a depth of about 75 miles (120 kilometers), where the atmospheric pressure reached about 320 pounds per square inch (22 bar). The scientists working on the data were dismayed to find ten times less water than expected.

Even more surprising: The amount of water the Galileo probe measured appeared to be still increasing at the greatest depth measured, far below where theories suggest the atmosphere should be well mixed. In a well-mixed atmosphere, the water content is constant across the region and more likely to represent a global average; in other words, it’s more likely to be representative of water planetwide. When combined with an infrared map obtained at the same time by a ground-based telescope, the results suggested the probe mission may have just been unlucky, sampling an unusually dry and warm meteorological spot on Jupiter.

“Just when we think we have things figured out, Jupiter reminds us how much we still have to learn,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Juno’s surprise discovery that the atmosphere was not well mixed even well below the cloud tops is a puzzle that we are still trying to figure out. No one would have guessed that water might be so variable across the planet.”