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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discuss the atmospheric composition of the giant planets
  • Describe the cloud formation and atmospheric structure of the gas giants
  • Characterize the giant planets’ wind and weather patterns
  • Understand the scale and longevity of storms on the giant planets

The atmosphere s of the jovian planets are the parts we can observe or measure directly. Since these planets have no solid surfaces, their atmospheres are more representative of their general compositions than is the case with the terrestrial planets. These atmospheres also present us with some of the most dramatic examples of weather patterns in the solar system. As we will see, storms on these planets can grow bigger than the entire planet Earth.

Atmospheric composition

When sunlight reflects from the atmospheres of the giant planets, the atmospheric gases leave their “fingerprints” in the spectrum of light. Spectroscopic observations of the jovian planets began in the nineteenth century, but for a long time, astronomers were not able to interpret the spectra they observed. As late as the 1930s, the most prominent features photographed in these spectra remained unidentified. Then better spectra revealed the presence of molecules of methane (CH 4 ) and ammonia (NH 3 ) in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn.

At first astronomers thought that methane and ammonia might be the main constituents of these atmospheres, but now we know that hydrogen and helium are actually the dominant gases. The confusion arose because neither hydrogen nor helium possesses easily detected spectral features in the visible spectrum. It was not until the Voyager spacecraft measured the far-infrared spectra of Jupiter and Saturn that a reliable abundance for the elusive helium could be found.

The compositions of the two atmospheres are generally similar, except that on Saturn there is less helium as the result of the precipitation of helium that contributes to Saturn’s internal energy source. The most precise measurements of composition were made on Jupiter by the Galileo entry probe in 1995; as a result, we know the abundances of some elements in the jovian atmosphere even better than we know those in the Sun.

James van allen: several planets under his belt

The career of physicist James Van Allen spanned the birth and growth of the space age, and he played a major role in its development. Born in Iowa in 1914, Van Allen received his PhD from the University of Iowa. He then worked for several research institutions and served in the Navy during World War II.

After the war, Van Allen ( [link] ) was appointed Professor of Physics at the University of Iowa. He and his collaborators began using rockets to explore cosmic radiation in Earth’s outer atmosphere. To reach extremely high altitudes, Van Allen designed a technique in which a balloon lifts and then launches a small rocket (the rocket is nicknamed “the rockoon”).

James van allen (1914–2006).

Photograph of James Van Allen holding a small rocket, which was part of a “rockoon”.
In this 1950s photograph, Van Allen holds a “rockoon.” (credit: modification of work by Frederick W. Kent Collection, University of Iowa Archives)

Over dinner one night in 1950, Van Allen and several colleagues came up with the idea of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an opportunity for scientists around the world to coordinate their investigations of the physics of Earth, especially research done at high altitudes. In 1955, the United States and the Soviet Union each committed themselves to launching an Earth-orbiting satellite during IGY, a competition that began what came to be known as the space race. The IGY (stretched to 18 months) took place between July 1957 and December 1958.

The Soviet Union won the first lap of the race by launching Sputnik 1 in October 1957. The US government spurred its scientists and engineers to even greater efforts to get something into space to maintain the country’s prestige. However, the primary US satellite program, Vanguard, ran into difficulties: each of its early launches crashed or exploded. Simultaneously, a second team of rocket engineers and scientists had quietly been working on a military launch vehicle called Jupiter-C. Van Allen spearheaded the design of the instruments aboard a small satellite that this vehicle would carry. On January 31, 1958, Van Allen’s Explorer 1 became the first US satellite in space.

Unlike Sputnik, Explorer 1 was equipped to make scientific measurements of high-energy charged particles above the atmosphere. Van Allen and his team discovered a belt of highly charged particles surrounding Earth, and these belts now bear his name. This first scientific discovery of the space program made Van Allen’s name known around the world.

Van Allen and his colleagues continued to measure the magnetic and particle environment around planets with increasingly sophisticated spacecraft, including Pioneers 10 and 11, which made exploratory surveys of the environments of Jupiter and Saturn. Some scientists refer to the charged-particle zones around those planets as Van Allen belt s as well. (Once, when Van Allen was giving a lecture at the University of Arizona, the graduate students in planetary science asked him if he would leave his belt at the school. It is now proudly displayed as the university’s “Van Allen belt.”)

Van Allen was a strong supporter of space science and an eloquent senior spokesperson for the American scientific community, warning NASA not to put all its efforts into human spaceflight, but to also use robotic spacecraft as productive tools for space exploration.

Questions & Answers

why the dark side of moon never face us? because moon dont rotate? why tho
Rishabh Reply
im in 8th standard and my school teach us nothing about astronomy but i want to be an astronomer so i study from youtube and apps like this but sometimes i get language problems
Rishabh
dark**
Glory
side**
Glory
The Moon does actually rotate. It takes 27 days for the Moon to make a full rotation. Because it takes it so long and the Earth is rotating around the sun, it seems like the Moon is pretty much standing still. That's called "synchronous rotation".
steveh259
I ment to say "The Earth is orbiting around the sun"
steveh259
Tidal Locked.....
Adam
***svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4442
Collins
thats cool
Gospel
ya gives you a look at how the moon orbits around us too and a perspective of how fast we are going. also gives the moon phases for the year! enjoy 😁
Collins
what phases of the moon occurs when spring tide?
Florence Reply
the moon has a 28 day cycle. you can download a moon calander or follow the pattern and make your own calendar. 1st full moon of the year 21/22nd Jan, its also a blood moon and a wolf moon. if this info helps at all. 😊
Collins
***svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4442
Collins
How to determine the velocity of light?
PARTHIB Reply
using this formula c=1/√absolute permeability×absolute permittivity of free space i.e. c=1/√8.854×10^-12×4π×10^-7~3×10^8ms^-1
Vidyashankar
what is mean by Big Bang
block Reply
What it means by Big Bang is how the world was made and came in to exist
Glory
The Big Bang Is The Best Explanation For What We See Around Us, And For The Origin Of The Universe, All Our Evidence Points To The Big Bang Theory..... And Was Proposed By A Belgian Priest.....
Adam
if the big bang theory is really true than i would like to know what exploded and where did it came from and where did the energy came from and where come from for the matter to expand into amd where did the organization come from and where did the information come from.........
Gospel
Some say that on the otherside of the singularity was a black hole. They say that at the other end of all black holes is another universe. Hence the multiverse. It's all theoretical at this point but less than a 100 years ago people believed that there was only 1 galaxy in the universe. So why
Rafael
should there be only 1 universe?
Rafael
universe.
Rafael
is astronomy a hard subject to learn because i want to be an astronomer
FNAF Reply
No it not it just takes time and effort to learn
Glory
if your already interested/observing, your already an astronomer ! The more you look and read the more you'll learn.
Collins
I want to become a scientist but my knowledge is very low. How I can improve my knowledge?
Wwe
any form of science courses, there's free crash course channel on you tube. I've learned alot from this channel. covers most topics, science: biology chemistry physics, astronomy, ranges to anatomy, history and many many more. it's a never ending subject!
Collins
suggest a channel as a example
Wwe
CrashCourse is the name of the channel and there is a picture of an apple. look through their play lists. They will have other related channels they follow also.
Collins
thank you so much
Wwe
your very welcome
Collins
Why are they so far away that their light takes hundreds of millions of years to reach us on earth?
LadyCatTM Reply
what is comets , astroids ,
Sumit Reply
comets are broken pieces of dust frozen debris Asteroids are big soiled pieces of Ice that burst into flames when it in to earth's atmosphere
Glory
hi, I am yamini, I am in class 8 but very much interested in astronomy and go to NASA, what are the subjects in which I can master and lead to NASA.
yamini Reply
Hello Yamini, Im Ken and I'm avery intrested in joining the NASA too. Is nice to meet you.
Ken
very*
Ken
nice to meet u ken
yamini
What I know about the subjects is that you have to be a master on science and math, also if you know about aviation is better too
Ken
I read that the Russian language is very important, is not a requirement but it's like an extra point!
Ken
yeah like physics, chemistry and maths, they are my most favorite.
yamini
than you can go free of cost
Arush
Yes, That's right!
Ken
how
yamini
Oh! Free of cost?
Ken
hello yamini nice to meet you
Burak
wow from NASA ur so lucky
FNAF
hello yamini nice to meet you
block
what is time
Abdul Reply
Time is relative
mrunal
pls elaborate
sakshi
the clear defination.I know that.
Abdul
In planet mars there the life exits or not and is there water there
Eshwarsa Reply
see till now nothing can be found as u know that the curiosity rover has struck in mars
Maya
It has been proven that there are water molecules on Mars but not enough that most lifeforms could thrive upon.
Ariana
There are huge amounts of water in the ice caps and under the surface. The surface and chemistry indicate that Mars had cosiderable amounts of water on its surface in the past.
Julius
what is your opinion about the theory of Vedas about modern physics..
Manish Reply
i think in some ways vedas are also correct but not everytime
Maya
I agree
sakshi
hmm even I agree
Samuel
Is there any patened theory about time relativitg in growth and development?
donot Reply
some astronomer's says that there is no alien exist but why search for extra terrestrial intelligence center is established
Eshwarsa Reply
No One Knows That For Absolute Fact, The Universe Is Too Huge To Have Any Type Of Idea About What Exist In The Far Reaches Of Our Universe.....
Adam
Check Out The Drake Equation.....
Adam
their should be aliens as like ours there would be another planet
Maya
which could have existed life on it
Maya
adam i want to ask a question
Maya
can kepler 1st law be applied on all the planets of the universe
Maya
hello, anyone home?
Denise
guys listen we cannot ever find aliens because our technology is not that great.we don't know whether they exist or no because our universe is very large . Just for an example;even if we spot out aliens we cannot reach there because lot of time must have been passed and before us reaching there
Samuel
what if their species or existence might get vanished our have been extinct!! getting my point
Samuel
sjskskfhjkkktewqqw and try?
Lanika Reply
what is this ?
Samuel
hi I am Samuel from India mumbai
Samuel
nice to meet you
Samuel
thats my question, what is this?
penzias and wilson's a discovery of the cosmic microwave background is a nice example of scientific serendipity-something that is found by chance but turns out to have a positive outcome
Jacqueline Reply

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Source:  OpenStax, Astronomy. OpenStax CNX. Apr 12, 2017 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11992/1.13
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