Jupiter's famous red spot is insanely hot! Scientists probe for explanations

July 28, 2016, 12:22 p.m.
Jupiter and its famous red spot
Photo: Ksanawo/Shutterstock

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is perhaps the most famous feature of this enormous planet. The "spot" is actually a massive superstorm, the largest known storm in the solar system, and new measurements of the temperature of the planet near the red spot may change our understanding of how the physics of Jupiter and other similar planets work.

For starters, there is a strange spike in temperature above the spot — about 1,000 degrees Kelvin hotter than other areas — and this heat is not attributable to the sun.

"To find out where this heat was coming from, a team of scientists from Boston University and the University of Leicester used a spectrometer at the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility to create a map of the temperature distribution across the striped gas giant. To do so, they tracked emission lines from a triple-hydrogen ion found in Jupiter’s atmosphere," reports the Los Angeles Times.

By reading the temperatures of the molecule, the researchers are creating a map of temperatures across the planet. They found a spike in temperature above the storm — reaching an incredible 1,600 degrees Kelvin — which shows that it is this superstorm affecting the temperature of the atmosphere hundreds of miles above.

Though its clear the storm is causing the heating, how it is doing it is still somewhat of a mystery.

One possibility put forward by James O'Donoghue, a researcher at Boston University's Center for Space Physics, is that the storm is creating sound waves that cause the heat. From NPR:

Here's what he thinks is happening: As the churning clouds and gases swirl and mix, they create a deafening roar. Those sound waves travel hundreds of miles up and crash into particles in the upper atmosphere, agitating them and raising the temperature.

This is just one possibility, but no one knows enough yet about the storm itself to point with certainty at a cause for the temperature spike.

Researchers hope that by finding similar spikes in temperature above other storms on Jupiter, they can start to tease out clues as to the cause. This along with more information currently being gathered about the storm itself can fill in our understanding of both the story of this hot spot as well as how atmospheres on other planets similar to Jupiter function.