Monthly Meeting – Speaker Dr Leigh Fletcher (Oxford University)

15th Apr 2013
On Monday 15th April, Dr Leigh Fletcher treated us to an intriguing look at the atmospheric processes taking place on the gas planets and gave us an insight into the work going on to explore those atmospheres and Jupiter's moons, his talk entitled ‘Strange Weather – Exploring the Giants of our Solar System’. Compared to the ‘rough’ surface of Earth which disrupts our weather patterns , the featureless surfaces of the gas giants allow the smooth flow of gases to be studied almost as a liquid allowing the dynamics of those alien atmospheres to be understood. Heat sources from within plus the outside effects of the Sun combine to separate out the different gases into layers, whilst impacts by asteroids and comets burrow deep into the thick layers churning and disrupting the atmospheres. Whilst our understanding of Jupiter and Saturn has been enhanced by the Galileo and Cassini space probes, our scant knowledge of the icy gas giants, Uranus and Neptune, is still based on the information of the Voyager probes of 40 years ago. Acknowledging that there is so much more we need to learn about the gas giants, Leigh made a strong point of highlighting the amount of attention (and money) being spent on Mars at the expense of exploring the gas giants. Juno, currently on its way to further explore Jupiter from 2016, looks like being the last major NASA project out to the gas planets. The European Space Agency’s JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) project, scheduled to launch in 2022 is specifically designed to study Jupiter's moons in detail – sadly, Leigh lamented, there are no further plans to visit the gas planets after that. Altogether a fascinating and well presented talk which sparked off a flurry of questions, Dr Leigh Fletcher made us focus on our solar system companions – and to contemplate just how much more there is that we need to know about them. By Robin Smitten
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