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.

Artist's impression of Jupiter's GRS heating the upper atmosphere. Researchers from Boston University’s (BU) Center for Space Physics report today in Nature that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot may provide the mysterious source of energy required to heat the planet’s upper atmosphere to the unusually high values observed. Sunlight reaching Earth efficiently heats the terrestrial atmosphere at altitudes well above the surface—even at 400 miles high, for example, where the International Space Station orbits. Jupiter is over five times more distant from the Sun, and yet its upper atmosphere has temperatures, on average, comparable to those found at Earth. The sources of the non-solar energy responsible for this extra heating have remained elusive to scientists studying processes in the outer solar system.

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.