Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is really, really hot | Science News for Students

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is really, really hot

The giant storm may help explain why the planet’s atmosphere is so warm
Aug 23, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
red spot

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.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

Jupiter     (in astronomy) The solar system’s largest planet, it has the shortest day length (10 hours). A gas giant, its low density indicates that this planet is composed of light elements, such as hydrogen and helium. This planet also releases more heat than it receives from the sun as gravity compresses its mass (and slowly shrinks the planet).

latitude     The distance from the equator measured in degrees (up to 90).

National Aeronautics and Space Administration     (or NASA) Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It has also sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and it must have cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, it must be big enough to pull neighboring objects into the planet itself or to sling-shot them around the planet and off into outer space. Astronomers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created this three-part scientific definition of a planet in August 2006 to determine Pluto’s status. Based on that definition, IAU ruled that Pluto did not qualify. The solar system now includes eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

sound wave     A wave that transmits sound. Sound waves have alternating swaths of high and low pressure.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Or a sunlike star.

telescope     Usually a light-collecting instrument that makes distant objects appear nearer through the use of lenses or a combination of curved mirrors and lenses. Some, however, collect radio emissions (energy from a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) through a network of antennas.

turbulence     The chaotic, swirling flow of air. Airplanes that run into turbulence high above ground can give passengers a bumpy ride.

wave     A disturbance or variation that travels through space and matter in a regular, oscillating fashion.

NGSS: 

  • MS-ESS1-3
  • HS-PS4-1
  • HS-ESS1-4

Citation

J. O’Donoghue et al. Heating of Jupiter's upper atmosphere above the Great Red SpotNature. Published online July 27, 2016. doi: 10.1038/nature18940.

Further Reading

Jupiter fact sheet. NASA. Updated May 16, 2016.