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Planetary Sciences

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Planetary Atmospheres
Planetary Atmospheres

Research in planetary atmospheres comprises a quantitative study of the atmospheres of major and minor bodies in the solar system and beyond. Investigations of gases, aerosols, hazes, and clouds apply broadly to global climate on the planets, meteorology and weather prediction, planetary evolution, and astrobiology.

Areas of Expertise

Core competencies in the area of planetary atmospheric research at JPL include:
  • Radiative transfer theory and remote sensing
  • Atmospheric chemistry and composition, dynamics, structure, optics, and evolution
  • Atmospheric process numerical modeling
  • Atmospheric data analysis
  • Image processing and scientific visualization

Selected Current Missions

JPL researchers in planetary atmospheres are actively involved in space missions planned for or in operation in the Solar System:

Inner Solar System

Outer Solar System

Published work covers Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, outer planetary satellites and planetary rings, surface-bound exospheres, comets, asteroids, brown dwarfs, and interstellar molecular clouds.

Sample Research and Development Efforts

Studying the Weather on Mars
Several scientists at JPL are involved in the day-to-day operations and data analysis of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) meteorology station. The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) consists of sensors measuring air and ground temperature, pressure, wind, UV radiation and atmospheric humidity every hour for the duration of the ongoing MSL mission, providing a detailed record of the surface environmental conditions at the Gale Crater landing site. The accumulated data from REMS can be used to understand the local environmental conditions in the crater, as well as the larger-scale circulations that influence this surface environment. In conjunction with numerical weather models, such data can be used to place observations by other MSL instruments into their proper environmental context, and provide insight into the past environment at Gale Crater.

Titan’s Detached Haze
Saturn’s moon Titan, one of the largest satellites in the solar system, is unique in having a thick atmosphere, lakes of liquid methane/ethane, cloudbursts, river channels and many other features at the same time familiar and exotic. One of the most interesting of these is Titan’s photochemical haze obscuring the surface. We are able to monitor a thin, distinct, high layer called the ‘detached’ haze. This layer encircles the planet except in the region of the winter polar vortex, and was first seen in Voyager images in 1980. Researchers are presently monitoring this detached haze with Cassini, and have observed a recent drop in haze altitude from ~500 km down to about 350 km, which appears tied to the season on Titan. As they continue to monitor the detached layer, they are finding that it is becoming less distinct, forming two layers. Efforts are continuing to monitor the evolution of the detached haze as the seasons change, and researchers expect a recovery of the haze to 500 km altitude as they move away from the equinox season.

sensor graphs
Top: Ground and air temperature (top) and surface pressure (bottom) measured by the MSL REMS instrument during a portion of the first two weeks (14 sols, where a ‘sol’ is a martian day) of the mission. Diurnal temperature swings at the surface exceed 80°C (for comparison, a typical diurnal summertime temperature swing in the US might be 20-30°C). Diurnal pressure varies by more than 10% (seen here), while seasonal pressure swings vary by up to 30%.
Bottom: A view of Saturn’s moon Titan (with Dione) against the bright disk of Saturn, making it possible to discern a thin, ‘detached’ haze layer above the main, hazy, Titan atmosphere. Saturn’s rings are seen edge on and the ring shadows apepar in the bottom of the frame.


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