Leicester's Planetary Atmospheres team is currently supported by a European Research Council Consolidator Grant (GIANTCLIMES), awarded to Dr. Leigh Fletcher (2017-2022), under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement No. 723890.

Giants Through Time: Towards a Comprehensive Giant Planet Climatology

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Context and Objectives:

Planetary science stands at a unique threshold – the discovery of thousands of new worlds beyond the confines of our own Solar System is bringing a fascinating new perspective on the forces shaping both the architecture of our planetary system and the fragile climate of our home planet. As exoplanetary studies move from a discovery phase into an era of atmospheric characterisation, our own solar system offers an extreme test of our understanding of how planetary climate, dynamics and chemistry differ from world to world, and whets our appetite for the myriad possibilities that remain to be discovered. The next five years will likely be transformational in our understanding of outer solar system environments and the role of giant planet formation on planetary system evolution, with the culmination of the Juno mission at Jupiter and the Cassini mission at Saturn, along with new exploration of Uranus and Neptune by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

But these missions offer only fleeting glimpses of these dynamic, ever-changing worlds when compared to their long orbital periods (10 years for Jupiter, 165 years for Neptune). How does the climate, circulation and chemistry of these atmospheres evolve over these large spans of time? What are the natural cycles of climate variability, and how do they differ from world to world? What can the giant planets reveal about the governing forces shaping planetary atmospheres in all their guises? The aim of GIANTCLIMES is to assemble the first comprehensive climatology of all four giant planets by combining an unprecedented multi-decade archive of ground-based infrared imaging with new spectroscopic observations from space telescopes and visiting spacecraft. This wealth of observational data will be studied via a sophisticated suite of spectral analysis software to understand the spatial and temporal variability in the redistribution of energy and material on the four giants. The GIANTCLIMES programme at the University of Leicester consists of three objectives will provide something that no single space mission has ever done before: the ability to explore the giants over large spans of time.

  1. Climate Cycles on Jupiter: What drives the spectacular transformations of Jupiter’s banded structure and triggers storms? Can these events be predicted? We are searching for natural atmospheric cycles on this archetypal giant by constructing a comprehensive climate record (temperature, composition, clouds) over three Jovian years to set the environmental context for short-lived spacecraft missions (e.g., Juno).
  2. Gas Giant Stratospheres: How does the circulation and chemistry of planetary stratospheres change with time as a result of the different conditions on each world? We are exploring the changing stratospheres of seasonal Saturn and non-seasonal Jupiter over long timescales to develop a new paradigm for the processes shaping these poorly-understood atmospheric regimes.
  3. Ice Giants: How do circulation patterns and climate cycles differ between the Ice and GasGiants? We are combining state-of-the-art observations from space observatories (Spitzer, Herschel, and JWST) to reveal the climate of these distant worlds like never before, providing the first 3D maps of temperature, composition and circulation within an ice giant atmosphere.



Group Members:

  • Dr. Leigh Fletcher (PI) (@LeighFletcher)
  • Dr. Arrate Antunano Martin (PDRA) - exploring Jupiter's long-term atmospheric cycles for theme 1. (@arrate_wp01)
  • Dr. James Blake (PDRA) - studying Saturn's seasonal variability for theme 2.
  • Dr. Michael Roman (PDRA) - investigating stratospheric conditions on the ice giants in preparation for JWST for theme 3.
  • Dr. Henrik Melin (PDRA) - Jupiter and Saturn observations for theme 1 and 2. (@hmelin_)
  • Dr. Jan Vatant d'Ollone (PDRA) - Ice Giant numerical simulations for theme 3 (@PlanetoJVO).
  • Ms. Naomi Rowe-Gurney (PhD Student) - working with Spitzer observations of the ice giants for theme 3. (@NRoweGurney)

Collaborating with:

  • Mr. Padraig Donnelly (PhD Student) - VLT observations of Jupiter to support Juno. (@PTDonnelly)
  • Mr. Oliver King (PhD Student) - Surface reflectance spectroscopy of the Galilean satellites.

For full details of progress on GIANTCLIMES, visit this website.

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