Jupiter's Great Red Spot Is Deeper Than Earth's Oceans and Growing Taller

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This color-enhanced image of Jupiter's Great Red Spot was created using data from NASA's JunoCam. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt

NASA's Juno spacecraft flew over Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a circular formation of red clouds on the southern hemisphere, in July 2017 and took some pretty spectacular images.

Data collected during the mission reveals that the Great Red Spot is much deeper than previously believed with a depth 50 to 100 times deeper than Earth's oceans.

"One of the most basic questions about Jupiter's Great Red Spot is: how deep are the roots?" said Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator, in a statement. "Juno data indicate that the solar system's most famous storm is almost one-and-a-half Earths wide, and has roots that penetrate about 200 miles (300 kilometers) into the planet's atmosphere."

Before NASA released this animation and their latest findings, they initially only had still images.

"Now we have the best pictures ever of this iconic storm. It will take us some time to analyze all the data from not only JunoCam, but Juno's eight science instruments, to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot," said Bolton.

As part of the project, citizen scientists took the raw images and processed them, offering an enhanced level of detail.

enhanced image of Jupiter's great red spot taken with JunoCam
A citizen scientist created this enhanced-color image of Jupiter's Great Red Spot using data from the JunoCam imager on NASA's Juno spacecraft. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major

“I have been following the Juno mission since it launched,” said Jason Major, a JunoCam citizen scientist and a graphic designer from Warwick, Rhode Island, who created the image above. “It is always exciting to see these new raw images of Jupiter as they arrive. But it is even more thrilling to take the raw images and turn them into something that people can appreciate. That is what I live for.”

The raw images, as well as the citizen-scientist images, can be found at NASA's Mission Juno site, and we'll be sharing more images and information as we learn more.

The storm is also growing taller

A 2018 study shows that the Great Red Spot is actually stretching upwards as it shrinks. “Storms are dynamic, and that’s what we see with the Great Red Spot. It’s constantly changing in size and shape, and its winds shift, as well,” said NASA's Amy Simon.

Simon's team analyzed decades of NASA data and historical observations. They determined that the storm is moving westward faster than before and contracting in size over time. The growing and shrinking is forcing the storm to stretch upwards — making the storm taller. However, the change is small compared to the overall size of the Great Red Spot.

But our favorite red spot won't last forever

Even though the Great Red Spot is 200 miles deep into Jupiter's atmosphere and larger in diameter than Earth, the storm won't be around for much longer according to NASA.

NASA Scientist Glenn Orton told Business Insider that the storm was four times the size of Earth in the late 1800s but is only approximately 1.3 times the size of Earth now and will likely disappear in our lifetime.

"The GRS (Great Red Spot) will in a decade or two become the GRC (Great Red Circle)," Orton said. "Maybe sometime after that the GRM" — the Great Red Memory.

Why this mission is such a big deal

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a storm on Jupiter that’s been raging for a really long time. We're talking more than 150 years, and raging may not quite the right word for a weather phenomenon that screams to the tune of 400 mile-per-hour winds and covers an area bigger in diameter than our planet.

From back in the 1600s, when astronomers first ogled Jupiter — a perspective-shattering planet that’s 1,000 times the size of our own humble home base — its blazing birthmark has baffled mere humans.

While scientists don't know whether our telescope-toting ancestors were eyeing the same storm — the gas giant is in a constant state of flux — they did eventually give that gargantuan crimson splotch a name: the Great Red Spot.

But soon, we might get a name that feels a little less "as-seen-through-a-telescope" and a little more detailed.

On July 10 at 10 p.m. EST, NASA's Juno spacecraft will be closer to The Spot than any spacecraft has ever been before — a daunting 5,600 miles above Jupiter's cloudy cusp.

The spacecraft, which has been tasked with the first in-depth exploration of Jupiter ever, just celebrated its first year in orbit last month. Today, it will literally stare down the a storm that spans some 10,000 miles.

Along the way, scientists are hoping to learn more about one of the solar system’s most enduring and iconic storms.

How we'll learn Jupiter's secrets

Juno is outfitted with equipment capable of capturing not only highly detailed images of the spot, but also measuring the storm's most minute details.

"We don't know what the Great Red Spot really looks like or even how it works," Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, tells CBC News. "This is the largest storm in the solar system. This is it. This is the king. The king planet and the king storm."

And the king, despite a flair for drama, may have a secret or two hidden behind the throne chair.

For one thing, scientists have long been baffled by the storm's mercurial nature. Over the centuries, it has expanded and contracted in size, while its colors deepen and fade like a cosmic mood ring.

In fact, the Great Red Spot may not even be all that great any more, with scientists suggesting it has slimmed down from around 25,000 miles in the 1800s to its current span of 10,000.

NASA notes that the storm has never been so small, and may in fact, disappear completely over the next couple of decades.

Jupiter's Great Red Spot
Images of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope over a span of 20 years. NASA/ESA

Even more intriguing is the possibility of what we might eventually see in this settling storm.

Juno can even draw back the curtain of ever-swirling clouds and analyze the conditions in the atmosphere that make up the storm's very foundation.

"It’s possible that the roots are quite deep," Bolton tells Now Public Radio (NPR). "So we'll be able to take a look at that and see what's underneath the cloud tops."

One by one, scientists expect to peel back the Great Red Spot’s secrets. But it won’t happen in just one fly-by. It takes the spacecraft roughly 53 days to orbit the gas giant — an uneven orbit that make take Juno dangerously closer to the surface on successive flybys.

But for each fly-by, Juno will focus its instruments on a different aspect of this many-layered storm system. But for the home audience, we can, at the very least, expect to gawk at images of the storm that we’ve never seen before.

"When you get really close, it's really amazing," Bolton tells CBC News. "It's like a piece of art. We will see things that we've never seen before."

Just don't expect those planetary polaroids right away. It took Juno about five years to reach the distant gas giant, a journey spanning an astounding 1.74 billion miles. Data, travelling back and forth, will take a lot less time, somewhere around 88 minutes.

At some point, images will land here, where Earthlings can marvel and swoon at this perfect storm.