Oct 28, 2021 - Science

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is "breaking our rules," NASA data shows

Image of the Great Red Spot on the planet Jupiter
Jupiter's Great Red Spot from Juno. Image: Enhanced by Kevin M. Gill (CC-BY) based on images provided courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Massive and drifting slowly across Jupiter, the Great Red Spot extends hundreds of miles into the planet's atmosphere, new data from NASA's Juno mission reveals.

Why it matters: By studying the depths of Jupiter, researchers can learn more about how the planet formed and shaped the development of others in the solar system, and how weather works on other worlds.

What they found: Data from two instruments on NASA's Juno mission show the Great Red Spot is between 300 and 500 kilometers, or 186 and 311 miles, deep, according to two papers published today in the journal Science.

  • The white, red and brown hued jet streams surrounding the Great Red Spot are up to 3,000 km (1,800 mi) deep.

The intrigue: The roots of the storm extend below the cloud tops, and where, at least on Earth, sunlight warms the atmosphere and creates water vapor that rises, condenses and forms clouds and rain.

  • Jupiter then goes "beyond our simple ideas of water and sunlight being the only driver of weather. That was really surprising," says Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute and principal investigator of the Juno mission.

Juno spotted two other vortex storms, but they aren't as deep.

  • "The Great Red Spot is not the only vortex storm that is breaking our rules," Bolton says.

What's not known: Whether the depth of the storm is changing over time, says Marzia Parisi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The big picture: The finding could help to answer a question that fascinates scientists: how has the storm persisted for centuries?

  • "Could we have a perpetual storm on Earth?" Parisi asks, adding the new data will help with modeling the longevity of storms and understanding the importance of land, which Jupiter lacks, in breaking up cyclones.
  • "When we explain differences between Jupiter and Earth, we learn something about the Earth," Bolton says. "We have to modify ideas so Earth still works and Jupiter still works and explain the differences we observe."
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