You could toss three Earths inside Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and there would still be a little room. One of the most iconic features in the solar system is likely behind one of Jupiter’s greatest mysteries.

The gas giant’s upper atmosphere is warm. Temperatures, on average, are comparable to those found in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Yet, Jupiter sits more than five times further away from the Sun. What’s going on? Researchers nixed the Sun as a possibility.

“With solar heating from above ruled out, 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,” said Dr. James O’Donoghue, lead author of the study.

The researchers from Boston University’s Center for Space Physics tapped a 3-meter infrared telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii to help their search – NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility.

NASA infrared telescope facility

Credit: Afshin Darian/Flickr

Using data from the SpeX instrument, the researchers could look at non-visible infrared light hundreds of miles above Jupiter’s cloud tops. It didn’t take long for them to find the source of the highest temperatures – Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

“A weird coincidence or a major clue?” O’Donoghue pondered.

We’ve known about the Great Red Spot since Jupiter’s discovery in the 17th century. Four centuries later and it’s still churning in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

How is the Great Red Spot heating the planet’s upper atmosphere? Researchers are pointing the finger at sound and gravity waves. The combination of the two waves colliding is believed to responsible for the immense energy transfer heating the gas giant’s upper atmosphere.

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“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.”

Understanding this ‘energy crisis’ helps shed light on the other gas giants in the solar system. Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are also home to much higher temperatures than expected in their upper atmosphere. The Boston University researchers believe this is probably the case for all large exoplanets (gas giants) throughout the universe.

Juno’s turn

Juno’s instruments weren’t designed to look at Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. Instead, the spacecraft will study what’s going on deep beneath Jupiter’s dense cloud cover.

According to NASA, Juno will get several chances to closely study the Great Red Spot and the regions surrounding it. The spacecraft’s microwave radiometer will probe the planet and sense the heat coming from inside. And help us understand the structure of the Great Red Spot and the colorful cloud bands crisscrossing Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Keep October 19th circled if you’re following the Juno mission. That’s the date the Juno team plans to initiate the Period Reduction Maneuver burn. That brings the orbital period around Jupiter from 53.5 days to just 14 days. One final 22-minute burn will place the spacecraft in the orbit Juno’s team wants to conduct the majority of the science observations.

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