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The Great Red Spot might reveal water on Jupiter

Jupiter's Great Red Spot Heats Planet's Upper Atmosphere 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.

The data Bjoraker and his team collected will supplement the information NASA’s Juno spacecraft is gathering as it circles the planet from north to south once every 53 days. “If it works, then maybe we can apply it elsewhere, like Saturn, Uranus or Neptune, where we don’t have a Juno,” she said.

Juno is the latest spacecraft tasked with finding water, likely in gas form, on this giant gaseous planet.

The Great Red Spot is the dark patch in the middle of this infrared image. It is dark due to the thick clouds that block thermal radiation. The yellow strip denotes the portion of the Great Red Spot used in astrophysicist Gordon L. Bjoraker’s analysis. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Gordon Bjoraker For centuries, scientists have worked to understand the makeup of Jupiter. It’s no wonder: this mysterious planet is the biggest one in our solar system by far, and chemically, the closest relative to the Sun. Understanding Jupiter is a key to learning more about how our solar system formed, and even about how other solar systems develop.

Is there water deep in Jupiter’s atmosphere, and if so, how much?

Gordon L. Bjoraker, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, reported in a recent paper in the Astronomical Journal that he and his team have brought the Jovian research community closer to the answer.

By looking from ground-based telescopes at wavelengths sensitive to thermal radiation leaking from the depths of Jupiter’s persistent storm, the Great Red Spot, they detected the chemical signatures of water above the planet’s deepest clouds. The pressure of the water, the researchers concluded, combined with their measurements of another oxygen-bearing gas, carbon monoxide, imply that Jupiter has 2 to 9 times more oxygen than the sun.

This finding supports theoretical and computer-simulation models that have predicted abundant water (H 2 O) on Jupiter made of oxygen (O) tied up with molecular hydrogen (H 2 ).

The revelation was stirring given that the team’s experiment could have easily failed. The Great Red Spot is full of dense clouds, which makes it hard for electromagnetic energy to escape and teach astronomers anything about the chemistry within.

The Great Red Spot is the dark patch in the middle of this infrared image. It is dark due to the thick clouds that block thermal radiation. The yellow strip denotes the portion of the Great Red Spot used in astrophysicist Gordon L. Bjoraker's analysis. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Gordon Bjoraker

“It turns out they’re not so thick that they block our ability to see deeply,” said Bjoraker. “That’s been a pleasant surprise.”

New spectroscopic technology and sheer curiosity gave the team a boost in peering deep inside Jupiter, which has an atmosphere thousands of miles deep, Bjoraker said:

“We thought, well, let’s just see what’s out there.”

The data Bjoraker and his team collected will supplement the information NASA’s Juno spacecraft is gathering as it circles the planet from north to south once every 53 days.

Among other things, Juno is looking for water with its own infrared spectrometer and with a microwave radiometer that can probe deeper than anyone has seen—to 100 bars, or 100 times the atmospheric pressure at Earth’s surface. (Altitude on Jupiter is measured in bars, which represent atmospheric pressure, since the planet does not have a surface, like Earth, from which to measure elevation.)

If Juno returns similar water findings, thereby backing Bjoraker’s ground-based technique, it could open a new window into solving the water problem, said Goddard’s Amy Simon, a planetary atmospheres expert. “If it works, then maybe we can apply it elsewhere, like Saturn, Uranus or Neptune, where we don’t have a Juno,” she said. Juno is the latest spacecraft tasked with finding water, likely in gas form, on this giant gaseous planet.

This animation takes the viewer on a simulated flight into, and then out of, Jupiter’s upper atmosphere at the location of the Great Red Spot. It was created by combining an image from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft with a computer-generated animation. The perspective begins about 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) above the cloud tops of the planet’s southern hemisphere. The bar at far left indicates altitude during the quick descent; a second gauge next to that depicts the dramatic increase in temperature that occurs as the perspective dives deeper down. The clouds turn crimson as the perspective passes through the Great Red Spot. Finally, the view ascends out of the spot. Credit: NASA/JPL

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