March 17th, 2010
02:27 PM ET

Astronomers get look inside solar system's biggest storm

Think your weatherman has trouble predicting temperatures in your area? Try being the person attempting to do that for Jupiter.

For years astronomers have studied the Great Red spot - the famously distinctive feature on the gas-packed planet of Jupiter - but now using some of the world's biggest telescopes astronomers have been able to produce the first detailed weather map of the spot, which is the biggest and longest-running storm in the solar system.

“We once thought the Great Red Spot was a plain old oval without much structure, but these new results show that it is, in fact, extremely complicated," Glenn Orton, who led the team of astronomers that made the study, said.

If you think about it, Orton told CNN, when you get you look at a weather map you need loads of different details to get an idea of the atmosphere on Earth - humidity, clouds, temperature and indicators of drafts. On Jupiter, for the longest time, scientists only understood small details about the climatology of the planet. But with these new images and information, scientists are able to glean greater understanding of what makes Jupiter tick.

"It gives us the next level, stepping up to the point where we are beginning to understand the whole system as a detailed structure," Orton said. "The detail is how does the structure of the red spot support itself, what takes place in big structures like this - which is so large three earth's could fit inside."

Orton said the combination of the images give astronomers an unprecedented resolution of the spot, building upon data from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft from the 1990s.

One of most interesting findings is that the most intense part of the spot - which is colored the deepest orange-red - is warmer than the rest of the environment around it. While it's only a few degrees, that means gases on the planet are descending deeper, which can trigger circulation changes in storms and can alter wind and cloud patterns on the planet, Orton said.

“This is the first time we can say that there’s an intimate link between environmental conditions — temperature, winds, pressure and composition — and the actual colour of the Great Red Spot,” lead author Leigh Fletcher said in a statement from the European Southern Observatory. “Although we can speculate, we still don’t know for sure which chemicals or processes are causing that deep red color, but we do know now that it is related to changes in the environmental conditions right in the heart of the storm.”

Orton said the biggest thing to take away from the findings is that scientists are getting closer to understanding more about the atmosphere on Jupiter and how different systems interact with each other - and it also gives them some inkling about aspects of the planet they can't see.

"The goal is to learn about the interaction of this oval, the giant red spot, and what it is telling us about the structure of the atmosphere below," he said, "because its also a diagnostic of the deeper atmosphere that we don't yet know about."

soundoff (144 Responses)
  1. ray j

    Why all the cynical comments on science?
    Everyone benefits from science and space research.
    If you don't find science interesting why not just read something else and
    make negative comments on that?

    See spot run? Go Spot go!

    Or is that over your head?

    March 17, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  2. SamRam

    I can remember how many thought President John F. Kennedy and his administration had run amuck; and how he was mocked and derided about the United States of America even getting involved in a space program. No doubt, had we not, we would all be speaking Russian now. The Russian's were way ahead of the United States and were on the verge of placing hydrogen and nuclear arms aboard space craft. And for President Kennedy to set our sights on landing on the moon; what a joke that was for the naaysayers. Though he did not live to see it, in 1969 (only 7 years after he set the goal) we were there!!

    We well may need to get off this planet with as many of us that can at some point in time of the future. I say, Ride Sally Ride!!

    Let's Get-R-Done.

    March 17, 2010 at 9:32 pm | Report abuse |
  3. JG

    Joe, you see that's short-sighted thinkin' right there. You can't look at something in one of the sciences and expect some 1:1 addition to daily life. Just because you didn't get a new flavor of Wheaties out of this discovery doesn't mean it's worthless, or won't bear fruit in the future.

    March 17, 2010 at 9:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. JG

    " God created and gave only earth to us to live peacefully. Now man started discovering God's work that leads to the destruction of earth where we are living. Earth is still a flat surface for me because I didn't try to out of it and take a look how it looks like.

    Posted by: Amal "

    Wow!. . . Just. . . WOW.

    March 17, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Max

    As a scientist, a lot of the responses on this message board are really ridiculous.
    1) Its not like we don't devote money to other sciences and civil projects that people could be doing on earth. Its not a zero sum game. That's sort of like saying, we have the army so we don't need police, because the army is more important and they both cost money...

    2) Scientists are people not your strategic chess pieces. Most of them didn't get into science because they thought it was going to solve all the worlds problems. They did it because that's what they were interested in or it was a good career. No one directs them on what to study what discoveries to make, and they study what they understand. Try this, how would you feel if someone came up to you and said, 'Yeah, I know you like being a carpenter, but I think a greater priority is being a fisherman. That's what you should do; just because I'm not informed enough to see the value, you should be doing something else.' You'd either laugh or be insulted. Yeah...

    3) Politics? Over Jupiter? Really? Take a moment and listen to what is being said here. There are a lot of people who legitimately went 'storm' => 'temperature' => 'global warming' => I don't agree! Must be bad science. Wow. Can you say forgone conclusion? That's really, really dangerous and embarrassingly stupid. Why don't you take this logic to the extreme and refuse that quadruple bypass when the time comes? Just remember: Scientists made it, and I think they're secretly liberal. => Bad science.

    Hey, I've got a tip: Pick up a copy of Science, and read all the articles about global warming, and then go back and read all the precedent to it. The stuff you don't understand, learn it pat. If you have a theory about why its wrong, get a grant, put together a team and test your hypothesis. THEN come back and criticize the science point by point. Can't be bothered? Don't have time? Can't understand no matter how hard you try? Then leave it to the brilliant minds who've worked their entire lives to understand just a shred of this stuff. As a litmus test, if you can't understand the response an informed scientist would give you to your criticism of their work, then you probably have no right entering the debate on that level.

    4) Finally, it is really inappropriate to impugn science as related to you by a popular media source. I saw a lot of people pointing out 'flaws' in the research and furiously forwarding their theories of what is going on and how stupid the scientists are, quoting THIS ARTICLE, not the actual report. HELLO... this is a 200 word blurb on CNN, and the actual publication is a 10,000 word, highly technical treatise in a peer-reviewed journal. If you think you can distill something that complicated down to a couple paragraphs appropriate for the average American, then you've got other problems altogether.

    March 17, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  6. R N Pruden, Chemical Technologist

    Well stated, Max. I still think someone is going to figure out how to run a pipeline over there and burn the gases over here. And Kristopher, it's "we" Americans...not that I am expert in American grammer: I'm Canadian. American science is truly interesting and exciting...I wish those of you would take more interest (as in learn more about the details)'d be surprised at the great things American's have discovered and invented (besides building bigger bombs). I think it's a huge mistake to kill the shuttle and I hope it doesn't happen. I do believe that NASA can do it on the cheap and probably more safely than it has in the past. As for learning more about the universe: I am all for it. Some day an American or someone somewhere will find a close neighbour somewhere out "there" who will invite us for tea and we will have the means to go. Beam me up, Scotty!

    March 17, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BiigAl

    The GRS is easy to explain. It's not a storm. It's the remnants of the impact of a very large object. The object was probably something like our planet with a molten or nuclear core, thus the longevity of the disturbance.

    March 17, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
  8. bluebird

    This article is really for those of who are astronomy junkies and the scientific minded. Most of these comments are typical of what you'd find in the politics section on healthcare. Do me a favor and go there to comment because the information here, is too profound for you.

    March 17, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
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