Jupiter is just not only the largest planet in our solar system, but also home to the largest storm in the solar system, known as the “Great Red Spot.” Until now, we’ve only been able to observe the storm from afar, but NASA’s Juno spacecraft, launched a decade ago, has shed some light on what’s happening beneath the planet’s red and white clouds.
According to an NPR report, the Juno mission was launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida in 2011 and reached Jupiter in 2016. In 2019, the probe changed course slightly and passed over the Great Red Spot twice.
The Great Red Spot resembles a storm here on Earth, but it is oversized, the report said.
NPR quoted Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, as saying, “It’s basically just clouds.” In reality, Byrne said, “it’s not that dissimilar to the things we know on Earth as cyclones, hurricanes or typhoons.”
As Tech Times reports, the Great Red Spot is believed to be twice the size of Earth and has wind speeds of 360 kilometers per hour, but it’s no ordinary storm – it actually has its own gravitational field, data from NASA’s Juno spacecraft show.
In fact, during Juno’s 2019 flyby of the spot, the field was so strong that the probe wobbled slightly, Tech Times reports.
At 10,000 miles in diameter, the Great Red Spot has been observed continuously for about 200 years, though it has been around for much longer – in comparison, large storms on Earth typically last a few days or weeks at most, according to NPR.
“We think this thing is really old,” says Scott Bolton, principal investigator for NASA’s Juno mission. “How it lasts this long is a mystery,” NPR quotes.
Using microwave sensors to penetrate the depths of the storm, Bolton and his team were able to create the first 3-D model of the Great Red Spot. They found that the Great Red Spot is very wide at the top and has the shape of a “pancake,” but is much thicker at depth than we would have expected, Bolton explained.
Storms on Jupiter are called vortices. Microwave observations show that they extend below the planet’s cloud cover, which in the case of the Great Red Spot “extends at least 200 miles into Jupiter’s clouds,” beyond “where clouds form and water condenses,” NPR reported.
Bolton noted, “This is very different from the way we think Earth’s atmosphere works, which is largely driven by water, clouds, condensation and sunlight,” NPR quoted.
NASA’s Juno mission appears to have observed that the Great Red Spot has shrunk. However, NASA astronomers say that as the Great Red Spot shrinks in diameter, it actually “gets bigger,” “which says a lot about its perceived depth,” the Tech Times reported.