NASA’s Juno spacecraft made its first pass over Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in July 2017 and penetrated the planet’s atmosphere.
According to data collected by Juno, the planet’s Great Red Spot penetrates well below the clouds and Jupiter has two previously uncharted radiation zones.
“One of the most basic questions about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is: how deep are the roots?” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
“Juno data indicate that the solar system’s most famous storm is almost one-and-a-half Earths wide, and has roots that penetrate about 200 miles (300 kilometers) into the planet’s atmosphere.”
The science instrument responsible for this in-depth revelation was Juno’s Microwave Radiometer (MWR).
“Juno’s Microwave Radiometer has the unique capability to peer deep below Jupiter’s clouds,” said Michael Janssen, Juno co-investigator from NASA’s JPL in Pasadena, California.
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a giant oval of crimson-colored clouds in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere that race counterclockwise around the oval’s perimeter with wind speeds greater than any storm on Earth.
It measures 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) in width as of April 3, 2017, the Great Red Spot is 1.3 times as wide as Earth.
This graphic shows a new radiation zone Juno detected surrounding Jupiter, located just above the atmosphere near the equator. Also indicated are regions of high-energy, heavy ions Juno observed at high latitudes. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/JHUAPL
“Juno found that the Great Red Spot’s roots go 50 to 100 times deeper than Earth’s oceans and are warmer at the base than they are at the top. Winds are associated with differences in temperature, and the warmth of the spot’s base explains the ferocious winds we see at the top of the atmosphere, “said Andy Ingersoll, professor of planetary science at Caltech and a Juno co-investigator.
The future of the Great Red Spot is still very much up for debate. While the storm has been monitored since 1830, it has possibly existed for more than 350 years.
In the 19th century, the Great Red Spot was well over two Earths wide. But in modern times, the Great Red Spot appears to be diminishing in size, as measured by Earth-based telescopes and spacecraft.
At the time NASA’s Voyagers 1 and 2 sped by Jupiter on their way to Saturn and beyond, in 1979, the Great Red Spot was twice Earth’s diameter.
Today, measurements by Earth-based telescopes indicate the oval that Juno flew over has diminished in width by one-third and height by one-eighth since Voyager times.
Juno also has detected a new radiation zone (identified by the Jupiter Energetic Particle Detector Instrument (JEDI), just above the gas giant’s atmosphere, near the equator. The zone includes energetic hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur ions moving at almost light speed.