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Gas Giants, Atmospheres and Weather: Windy Worlds


Color composite image showing three different views of Jupiter's clouds.
Jupiter has numerous bands with incredible wind belts moving in different directions. This composite image shows a belt that had previously vanished in Jupiter's atmosphere is now reappearing. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL/UH/NIR)

Got air? Many of the planets in our solar system have significant atmospheres, but none are breathable to us except our own Earth's. But the weather systems on other planets can help us to better understand our own world.

Venus' atmosphere is much thicker than our own, and Mars' is much thinner; both are poisonous to us, as they are primarily composed of carbon dioxide with no free oxygen. The outer planets' atmospheres are worse -- deadly combinations of gases with unimaginable wind and temperature extremes.

Extreme Acid Rain!
Venus' atmosphere has suspended droplets
-- clouds -- of sulfuric acid. This extremely
corrosive substance can explode when water
is added. It rains, but evaporates before it
reaches the ground.
Color image of brownish clouds on Venus.

These windy worlds do have some commonalities with our home planet. Like Earth, they have jet streams that can direct the flow of clouds and circulate the atmosphere.

Missions have observed lightning on Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. All of the planets with significant atmospheres have storms. Venus is blanketed by dense clouds, and Mars periodically has global dust storms. Jupiter's Great Red Spot is a high-pressure storm much bigger than our own Earth that has been raging for at least 400 years. The missions studying these planets and in orbit around our Earth are improving our understanding of our atmosphere, our ozone layer and storms, and give clues about how planetary atmospheres formed in the first place.

A new wind is blowing: this topic celebrates the Juno mission, en route to the planet Jupiter! Juno will reveal much about this largest gas giant, including the structure of its atmosphere. Check out activities about storms and weather, and examine videos and podcasts to blow some fresh air into your own programs!

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Last Updated: 16 Apr 2014