NASA’s Juno spacecraft probes the depths of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot
The iconic storm stretches down to between 350 and 500km below the giant planet’s swirling clouds.
Since entering Jupiter’s orbit in 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft has completed 37 flybys of the giant planet, shedding light on the unseen processes raging beneath its clouds with each pass.
Now, scientists studying data taken by the spacecraft’s microwave radiometer (MWR) and NASA’s Earth-based Deep Space Network tracking antenna have made new insights into the structure of one of Jupiter’s most iconic features - the Great Red Spot. With its bright crimson hue and diameter wider than the Earth, this enigmatic anticyclone has captured the imagination of astronomers since its discovery two centuries ago.
Data from the MWR shows that cyclones within the giant planet’s atmosphere, large-scale air masses that rotate anticlockwise around a centre of low atmospheric pressure in the northern hemisphere, are warmer near the top and colder near the bottom. While anticyclones, such as the Great Red Spot, rotate in the opposite direction and are colder at the top but warmer at the bottom.
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The findings also indicate these storms are far taller than expected, with some extending 100km below the cloud tops and others, including the Great Red Spot, extending over 350km.
“Previously, Juno surprised us with hints that phenomena in Jupiter’s atmosphere went deeper than expected,” said Dr Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now, we’re starting to put all these individual pieces together and getting our first real understanding of how Jupiter’s beautiful and violent atmosphere works – in 3D.”
A second team of researchers then used data on Jupiter’s gravity field recorded by NASA’s Earth-based Deep Space Network tracking antenna to produce a second estimate of the Great Red Spot’s depth. As the Great Red Spot is so large, Juno experiences small gravitational tugs as it flies over it.
By measuring tiny changes in Juno’s velocity as small as 0.01 millimetres per second due to the changes in gravitational pull, the team were able to produce an estimate of the Great Red Spot’s depth of around 500km. When combined with the MWR data this suggests the anticyclone is between 350 and 500km deep.
“The precision required to get the Great Red Spot’s gravity during the July 2019 flyby is staggering,” said lead author Marzia Parisi, a Juno scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California. “Being able to complement MWR’s finding on the depth gives us great confidence that future gravity experiments at Jupiter will yield equally intriguing results.”
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.