If it weren’t for the Sun, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot would be a much blander feature on the gas giant, a new study reveals. This stands apart from what most scientists think about why for why the spot looks so colorful: that there are features in the clouds that give it its distinctive shade.
The new data comes from observations with the Cassini spacecraft, combined with experiments in the lab. They conclude that the Red Spot’s immense height, combined with sunlight breaking apart the atmosphere there into certain chemicals, make the feature that red that is visible even in small telescopes.
“Our models suggest most of the Great Red Spot is actually pretty bland in color, beneath the upper cloud layer of reddish material,” said Kevin Baines, a Cassini team scientist based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, in a statement. “Under the reddish ‘sunburn’ the clouds are probably whitish or grayish.”
The lab experiments combined ammonia and acetylene gases (atmospheric components from Jupiter) with ultraviolet light (simulating what the Sun produces), which created a ruddy substance that matched observations made with the Cassini spacecraft back in 2000. They also tried breaking apart ammonium hydrosulfide, a common element in Jupiter’s high clouds, but the color produced was actually a bright green.
The Great Red Spot is a storm that has been raging on Jupiter since at least when telescopes were first used in the 1600s. Over the past few decades, its size has shrunk considerably –it’s now half of what historical measurements showed — but it is still much larger than Earth. Scientists are hoping the forthcoming Juno mission, which will arrive at Jupiter at 2016, will help learn more about what is going on.
Results were presented at the Division for Planetary Science of the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting this week in Tucson, Arizona. A press release did not disclose publication plans or if the research is peer-reviewed.