Is the Red Spot heating Jupiter's atmosphere?

A new study reveals that the source of unusual heating in Jupiter's upper atmosphere could be its most famous feature.

Published: June 28, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Artist’s conception of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot heating the planet’s upper atmosphere. Credits: Art by Karen Teramura, UH IfA with James O’Donoghue and Luke Moore

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Jupiter’s Great Red Spot could be the source of the planet’s unusually high upper atmospheric temperatures.

A study of the gas giant’s atmosphere has pinpointed the maximum temperatures at high altitudes as being just above Jupiter’s most famous feature.

The discovery could shed light on an unsolved mystery regarding the temperatures of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, which are similar to those found on Earth despite Jupiter being over five times our planet’s distance from the Sun.

Researchers used the SpeX spectrometer on Mount Kea, Hawaii, to observe non-visible infrared light hundreds of kilometres above the planet and found temperatures were much higher in the southern hemisphere, where the Great Red Spot is located.

“We could see almost immediately that our maximum temperatures at high altitudes were above the Great Red Spot far below - a weird coincidence or a major clue?” says lead author James O’Donoghue of Boston University.

The study goes on to reveal that the storms in the Great Red Spot produce both gravity waves and acoustic waves, which could be clashing in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere and causing the heating.

“The extremely high temperatures observed above the storm appear to be the ‘smoking gun’ of this energy transfer,” says O’Donogue.

“This tells us that planet-wide heating is a plausible explanation for the ‘energy crisis', a problem in which upper-atmospheric temperatures are measured hundreds of degrees hotter than can be explained by sunlight alone.”

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Further investigations into the Great Red Spot and Jupiter’s atmosphere will be made by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, currently orbiting the planet.

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