Jupiter’s red, giant superstorm source of planet’s heat

28 Jul 2016

The Great Red Spot, visible in the lower left of this image of Jupiter, is a source of heat on the planet

New NASA-backed research suggests that Jupiter’s surprisingly warm atmosphere is due to the planet’s Great Red Spot, a storm three times the size of Earth.

We’re due a deluge of scientific discovery from Jupiter following Juno’s arrival in the giant planet’s atmosphere a few weeks back. However, a new study – a precursor to the main event – has already produced some surprising findings.


Investigating the heat in Jupiter’s atmosphere – which is similar to Earth’s, despite being five times farther from the Sun – researchers now think the Great Red Spot is more than just a storm.

Using a Hawaii-based infrared telescope, Boston University’s James O’Donoghue led a team who measured heat at different points around the planet.

In a paper published in Nature, what they found was bizarre.

Weird coincidence?

“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?” said O’Donoghue.

The paper claims that two kinds of energy waves are generated from the storm, colliding higher up in the atmosphere and producing high levels of heat.

“The extremely high temperatures observed above the storm appear to be the ‘smoking gun’ of this energy transfer,” said O’Donoghue.

“This tells us that planet-wide heating is a plausible explanation for the ‘energy crisis,’ a problem in which upper-atmospheric temperatures are measured hundreds of degrees hotter than can be explained by sunlight alone.”

Size matters

Everything on Jupiter just screams ‘scale’. Recent monitoring of the planet’s auroras found that even they were big enough to cover Earth in its entirety.

“These auroras are very dramatic and among the most active I have ever seen”, said Jonathan Nichols, principal investigator of the study.

“It almost seems as if Jupiter is throwing a firework party for the imminent arrival of Juno.”

Aurora Jupiter

Astronomers are using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to study auroras on the poles of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter. Image via NASA, ESA, and J Nichols

Main Jupiter image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic