Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is really, really hot

The giant storm may help explain why the planet’s atmosphere is so warm

In this illustration of Jupiter, churning air over the Great Red Spot creates a hot spot (yellow) hundreds of degrees of warmer than the surrounding atmosphere.

DILLON YOTHERS, LUKE MOORE

On Jupiter, a giant storm has been churning for at least 150 years. It’s known as the Great Red Spot. And it is the hottest thing going. Temperatures over the ruddy oval are hundreds of degrees warmer than neighboring bits of air. In fact, they’re hotter than anywhere else on this planet, a new study finds. Heat from the storm might help explain why Jupiter is unusually toasty given its distance from the sun.

For more than 40 years, astronomers have known Jupiter’s upper atmosphere is surprisingly hot. Mid-latitude temperatures are about 530° Celsius (990° Fahrenheit). That’s roughly 600 degrees Celsius (1,100 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than they would be if the sun were the planet’s only source of heat.

So warmth also must be coming from Jupiter itself. But until now, researchers had not come up with a good explanation for what might generate that heat.

BIG RED In this video, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot glows with infrared light while the planet rotates. The bright spots near the poles are from the planet’s auroras, the equivalent of Earth’s northern lights. J. O’DONOGHUE, LUKE MOORE, NASA INFRARED TELESCOPE FACILITY

James O’Donoghue led the new study. He is an astrophysicist at Boston University in Massachusetts. Heat shows up as infrared energy. So his team used observations from the Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii to view Jupiter’s heat. The facility is run by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. The temperature over the Great Red Spot is about 1,300 °C. (2,400 °F.), the new data show. That is hot enough to melt some forms of iron.

Active storms all around Jupiter could be injecting heat into the atmosphere, the researchers report. They described their findings online July 27 in Nature. 

Turbulence in the atmosphere above the Great Red Spot may be creating sound waves. Those might be heating air above the storm, the scientists say. Similar heating has occurred on Earth. It happens, on a much smaller scale, as air ripples over the Andes Mountains of South America.

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