Jupiter—the closest gas giant to our planet—is possibly also one the most fascinating celestial bodies humanity is knowledgeable of. But just as fascinating as the planet itself is Jupiter’s red spot—a gargantuan, cyclonic storm, the size of three earths (about sixteen thousand miles across), swirling tempestuously in the southern hemisphere of this great, majestic planet. In fact, when measured with the storms on earth, Jupiter’s Red Spot has the force and power of a Category 20 hurricane (earth storms are ranked on a scale of 1 to 5)! And it is this red storm that has been a powerful source of intrigue for scientists and astronomers for hundreds of years—since it consists of a captivating entity disarmingly close to ourselves. Undoubtedly, Jupiter is around 588 million kilometers from the earth, but when held against the fabric of the universe, that massive distance isn’t really very overwhelming at all.
The defining feature of Jupiter, the iconic Red Spot has persisted for centuries; the hurricanes on earth last a matter of hours or even for a mere few minutes—due to the presence of land. However, Jupiter has no land—so it is not highly surprising that a tempest that has been initiated will not cease its motion for an extremely long period of time. The winds of this spot (the largest vortex in the Solar System) possess a five-day long rotation, blow at around 384 miles per hour, and are anticyclonic; an anticyclone is a wind system with has a high atmospheric pressure at the center, around which air circulates in a clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere (the winds on earth blow in precisely the opposite directions). All the same, even though these winds are extremely powerful in the periphery of the spot, the center is quite calm—sort of like the lack of motion inside the eye of the hurricane.
The Great Red Spot is said to have been created due to the combining forces of internal, almost unlimited heat and the disorienting, rapid rotating motion of Jupiter about its planetary axis (it completes one complete rotation in only ten hours). And it is these conditions on Jupiter that fuel the conditions to harbor one of the largest, most enduring storms ever detected by humanity. This red vortex spins at approximately five kilometers above the top layers of Jupiter’s clouds—at speeds that effortlessly dwarf the magnitude of hurricanes and tornadoes on the surface of the earth.
A major mystery pertaining to Jupiter’s Spot is its red hue. Scientists and chemists attribute this distinctive shade to the presence of ammonia and acetylene in the upper reaches of its atmosphere; as explained by the astronomer Kevin Baines, “the model that fits is basically a ‘crème brûlée’ or ‘strawberry-frosted cake’ model”—this is because only the cream of the red spot’s atmosphere is red, whereas the underlying depths are a rather bland, pale white. Moreover, as further elaborated by Baines, “the GRS acts as a cauldron, confining materials and letting them cook”; this allows the red colorants and tints to accumulate in the atmosphere of the red spot. Furthermore, the color of the Great Red Spot does not stay constant over time!—these ever-shifting hues take place due to variations in the amount of ammonia and acetylene in the upper ambience of this enormous, intimidating gas giant.
However, the Great Red Spot may not the everlasting entity it is assumed to be. Astronomers and scientists have been observing the GRS for the last decade, and have come to the conclusion that it is actually shrinking, and is becoming more circular from its initially ovoid configuration. Therefore, there have also been some theories that this distinctive feature of Jupiter may disappear entirely, and merge with the swirling gusts that reside on this formidable gas planet. No one is entirely certain behind this bewildering process, but scientists and astronomers have theorized that “some unknown activity in the planet’s atmosphere may be draining energy and weakening the storm, causing it to shrink”, as said by Hubble officials. Moreover, as stated by Amy Simon, an associate director at the Goddard Space Flight Center— “In our new observations, it is apparent that very small eddies are feeding into the storm […] We hypothesized that these may be responsible for the accelerated change, by altering the internal dynamics and energy of the Great Red Spot”.
We all like to read more about interesting phenomena that exist beyond the Solar System and even the Milky Way Galaxy—so much that we forget the mind-blowing occurrences in our near proximity. Jupiter, one of the closest planets to our own, has produced certain weather conditions so unfathomable, so beyond our imaginations, that the best humans can do is to continue with research and observation, and to keep dreaming with an open mind.