On Jupiter, a storm has been brewing for more than 300 years. This swirling high-pressure area, known as the Great Red Spot, is clearly visible from space and spans a region of Jupiter’s atmosphere that is more than 16,000 kilometers wide – about one and a quarter times the diameter of the earth.
But there is even more in the thundering storm than one can see; according to two new studies published on October 28 in journal ScienceJupiter’s large red spot is also extraordinarily deep and extends as many as 300 miles (480 km) into the planet’s atmosphere – or about 40 times as deep as Mariana Trench on earth.
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It is far deeper than the researchers expected, where the bottom of the storm extends far below the atmospheric level, where water and ammonia are expected to condense into clouds, the researchers wrote. The deep roots of the storm suggest that some as yet unknown processes connect Jupiter’s inner and deep atmosphere, driving intense meteorological events across much larger scales than previously thought, the researchers said.
“We get our first real understanding of how Jupiter’s beautiful and violent atmosphere works,” said Scott Bolton, chief investigator of NASA’s Juno Mission and lead author of one of the new newspapers, said in a statement.
Both new studies relied on observations from NASA’s Juno probe, which entered Jupiter’s orbit in 2016 and has since completed 36 passages of the nearly 87,000-mile-wide (140,000 km) gas giant. In one study, scientists examined the large red spot using the probe’s microwave radiometer – a tool that detects microwaves emitted from inside the planet. Unlike radio and infrared radiation emitted by the gas giant, microwaves can travel all the way through the planet’s thick cloud layer, according to NASA.
By studying the microwave emissions that reached the big red spot, the authors of the first study determined that the storm extends more than 200 miles or about 350 km deep.
The second study showed that the site may be even larger than that. The paper’s authors examined the large red spot using Juno’s gravity detection tools. By synthesizing data from 12 flights that passed the site – including two direct overhead flights – the scientists calculated where the storm concentrated the most atmospheric mass over the planet so they could estimate its depth. The authors determined that the site reaches a maximum depth of about 300 miles (500 kilometers) below the cloud tops.
As deep as this looks, the great red spot is still much more shallow than the enormous jets of wind that surround and propel it, the researchers said; these wind bands extend to depths of about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) below the cloud tops. The causes of this discrepancy remain a jigsaw puzzle, but the relative superficiality of the site may be due to another newly discovered phenomenon: The Great Red Spot is shrinking, the researchers said, having lost about a third of its width since 1979.
The future of the place is still uncertain, but no matter what happens, Juno will continue to keep an eye on our large, gas-filled neighbor in space.
Originally published on Live Science.