U of A researchers using 3D simulations to study storms on Jupiter and Saturn

Our planet isn’t the only one in the solar system that churns out huge, hurricane-like storms. Space giants like Jupiter and Saturn can experience squalls, bigger than the entire Earth.

Jet streams and cyclones on Jupiter and Saturn recreated using 3D modelling

Advanced 3D modelling is giving scientists a new view of storms on Jupiter and Saturn. (Supplied by the University of Alberta)

Our planet isn't the only one in the solar system that churns out huge, hurricane-like storms.

Space giants like Jupiter and Saturn can experience squalls much larger than those on our blue planet. And unlike the powerful storms seen here on Earth, planetary storms can continue for centuries.

Now a research team at the University of Alberta is using 3D imaging to create some of the most realistic models of those massive space storms to date.

Moritz Heimpel, the physics professor leading the study, has been creating 3D simulations of storms on both Jupiter and Saturn to better understand the dynamics of space weather. In doing so, he hopes to find new insight into Earth's own weather patterns.

​"Since the pioneering telescope observations of Giovanni Cassini in the mid-17th century, stargazers have wondered about the bands and spots of Jupiter," Heimpel said in a statement on Monday. 

However, after 350 years of observation by scientists, Heimpel said the source of the weather networks remains mysterious to modern-day researchers.

"The average citizen can now pick up a backyard telescope and see the structures that we write about today. However, even in the present age with the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn and the Juno craft approaching Jupiter, there is considerable debate about the dynamics of the atmospheres of the giant planets."

Previous modelling methods struggled to create realistic simulations of the jet streams and vortices, which are whirling masses of water and air. But Heimpel's new system, which uses fluid dynamics and supercomputers, accounts for both.

"One of the big questions we have is how deep do these structures go?" Heimpel asked.

"These storms are embedded in these jet streams, and there's no solid surface to stop them. Our simulations imply that the jet streams plunge deep into the interior, while the storms are rather shallow."

Two new missions will lead to new questions and controversies

Next summer, Heimpel and his team will push their research even further as the Juno spacecraft arrives in one of Jupiter's polar orbits. The following year, the Cassini mission will move into orbit around Saturn.

"These two missions will be key to verifying some of the predictions of our computer simulations. And more importantly, the missions will lead to new questions and controversies that we will address with ever more sophisticated analysis."

The findings were published in the journal Nature Geoscience on Monday morning.