Jupiter’s giant red storm makes its atmosphere hotter than molten lava

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BOSTON — Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the huge storm that has roiled the gas giant for up to 300 years, heats the atmosphere above it to scorching temperatures, new findings show.

Atmospheric temperatures on Jupiter range from around 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit to upward of 2,420 degrees. That’s greater than the temperature of molten lava and would cause lithium batteries in cellphones to boil and turn to gas.

Such large ranges in temperature could not just be explained by heat from the sun, said James O’Donoghue, a research scientist at Boston University’s Center for Space Physics.

“We designed observations to map the heat distribution over the entire planet in search for any temperature anomalies that might yield clues as to where the energy is coming from,” he said in a statement. “We could see almost immediately that our maximum temperatures at high altitudes were above the Great Red Spot far below — a weird coincidence or a major clue?”

Great Red Spot

A colossal, perpetual hurricane measuring around 20,000 kilometers across, more than three times the size of Earth, the Great Red Spot has winds that take up to six days to complete one spin.

“The Great Red Spot is a terrific source of energy to heat the upper atmosphere at Jupiter, but we had no prior evidence of its actual effects upon observed temperatures at high altitudes,” said Luke Moore, co-author of the BU study, published in the journal Nature.

The huge storm emits large sound waves and atmospheric gravity waves — created when large pockets of air collide — with huge amounts of kinetic energy, sending atoms flying around and raising the temperature of the atmosphere above the Spot.

According to the BU team, the Great Red Spot storm’s counterclockwise rotation runs against the natural clockwise spin of Jupiter’s atmosphere, causing constant collisions and turbulence and giving rise to acoustic and gravity waves.

“The Great Red Spot is the largest storm in the solar system — it is bigger than Earth itself — so it generates a lot of turbulence that impedes the flow of air in the atmosphere,” O’Donoghue told Space.com.

“It is kind of like when you stir a cup of coffee and you turn the spoon around and go the opposite way. Suddenly, there is a lot of sloshing [turbulence] going on that generates sound waves, or compressions of air, upwards for you to hear.”

O’Donoghue and his team hope that NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which recently entered Jupiter’s orbit, will provide close-up observations that will give us greater insights into the Great Red Spot and our solar system’s largest planet.

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