Astronomy

The Great Red Spot Probably Formed in the Early 1800s

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (GRS) is one of the Solar System’s defining features. It’s a massive storm that astronomers have observed since the 1600s. However, its date of formation and longevity are up for debate. Have we been seeing the same phenomenon all this time?

The GRS is a gigantic anti-cyclonic (rotating counter-clockwise) storm that’s larger than Earth. Its wind speeds exceed 400 km/h (250 mp/h). It’s an icon that humans have been observing since at least the 1800s, possibly earlier. Its history, along with how it formed, is a mystery.

Its earliest observations may have been in 1632 when a German Abbott used his telescope to look at Jupiter. 32 years later, another observer reported seeing the GRS moving from east to west. Then, in 1665, Giovanni Cassini examined Jupiter with a telescope and noted the presence of a storm at the same latitude as the GRS. Cassini and other astronomers observed it continuously until 1713 and he named it the Permanent Spot.

Unfortunately, astronomers lost track of the spot. Nobody saw the GRS for 118 years until astronomer S. Schwabe observed a clear structure, roughly oval and at the same latitude as the GRS. Some think of that observation as the first observation of the current GRS and that the storm formed again at the same latitude. But the details fade the further back in time we look. There are also questions about the earlier storm and its relation to the current GRS.

New research in Geophysical Research Letters combined historical records with computer simulations of the GRS to try to understand this chimerical meteorological phenomenon. Its title is “The Origin of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” and the lead author is Agustín Sánchez-Lavega. Sánchez-Lavega is a Professor of Physics at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain. He’s also head of the Planetary Sciences Group and the Department of Applied Physics at the University.

“Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (GRS) is the largest and longest-lived known vortex of all solar system planets, but its lifetime is debated, and its formation mechanism remains hidden,” the authors write in their paper.

The researchers started with historical sources dating back to the mid-1600s, just after the telescope was invented. They analyzed the size, structure, and movement of both the PS and the GRS. But that’s not a simple task. “The appearance of the GRS and its Hollow throughout the history of Jupiter observations has been highly variable due to changes in size, albedo and contrast with surrounding clouds,” they write.

This figure from the research compares the Permanent Spot (PS) and the current GRS. a, b, and c are drawings by Cassini from 1677, 1690, and 1691, respectively. d is a current 2023 image of the GRS. Image Credit: Sánchez-Lavega et al. 2024.

“From the measurements of sizes and movements we deduced that it is highly unlikely that the current GRS was the PS observed by G. D. Cassini. The PS probably disappeared sometime between the mid-18th and 19th centuries, in which case we can say that the longevity of the Red Spot now exceeds 190 years at least,” said lead author Sánchez-Lavega. The GRS was 39,000 km long in 1879 and has shrunk to 14,000 km since then. It’s also become more rounded.

Four views of Jupiter and its GRS. a is a drawing of the Permanent Spot by G. D. Cassini from 19 January 1672. b is a drawing by S. Swabe from 10 May 1851. It shows the GRS area as a clear oval with limits marked by its Hollow (drawn by a red dashed line). c is a Photograph by A. A. Common from 1879. d is a photograph from Observatory Lick with a yellow filter on 14 October 1890. Each image is an astronomical image of Jupiter with south up and east down. Image Credit: Sánchez-Lavega et al. 2024.

The historical record is valuable, but we have different tools at our disposal now. Space telescopes and spacecraft have studied the GRS in ways that would’ve been unimaginable to Cassini and others. NASA’s Voyager 1 captured our first detailed image of the GRS in 1979, when it was just over 9,000,000 km from Jupiter.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot as imaged by Voyager 1 in 1979. The intricate wave patterns were unseen until this image. Image Credit: By NASA – http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA00014, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86812

Since Voyager’s image, the Galileo and Juno spacecraft have both imaged the GRS. Juno, in particular, has given us more detailed images and data on Jupiter and the GRS. It captured images of the planet from only 8,000 km above the surface. Juno takes raw images of the planet with its Junocam, and NASA invites anyone to process the images, leading to artful images of the GRS like the one below.

A different take on Jupiter and its GRS. Image Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Navaneeth Krishnan S © CC BY

Juno also measured the depth of the GRS, something previous efforts couldn’t achieve. Recently, “various instruments on board the Juno mission in orbit around Jupiter have shown that the GRS is shallow and thin when compared to its horizontal dimension, as vertically it is about 500 km long,” explained Sánchez-Lavega.

Jupiter’s atmosphere contains winds running in opposite directions at different latitudes. North of the GRS, winds blow in a westerly direction and reach speeds of 180 km/h. South of the GRS, the winds flow in the opposite direction at speeds of 150 km/h. These winds generate a powerful wind shear that fosters the vortex.

In their supercomputer simulations, the researchers examined different forces that could produce the GRS in these circumstances. They considered the eruption of a gigantic superstorm like the kind that happens, though rarely, on Saturn. They also examined the phenomenon of smaller vortices created by the wind shear that merged together to form the GRS. Both of those produced anti-cyclonic storms, but their shapes and other properties didn’t match the current GRS.

“From these simulations, we conclude that the super-storm and the mergers mechanisms, although they generate a single anticyclone, are unlikely to have formed the GRS,” the researchers write in their paper.

The authors also point out that if either of these had happened, we should’ve seen them. “We also think that if one of these unusual phenomena had occurred, it or its consequences in the atmosphere must have been observed and reported by the astronomers at the time,” said Sánchez-Lavega.

However, other simulations proved more accurate in reproducing the GRS. Jupiter’s winds are known to have instabilities called the South Tropical Disturbance (STrD). When the researchers performed supercomputer simulations of the STrD, they created an anti-cyclonic storm very similar to the GRS. The STrD captured the different winds in the region and trapped them in an elongated shell like the GRS. “We therefore propose that the GRS generated from a long cell resulting from the STrD, that acquired coherence and compactness as it shrank,” the authors write.

These images from the research show how the GRS formed. a is a drawing by T. E. R. Phillips in 1931–1932 of the STrD. The red arrows indicate the flow direction with the longitude scale indicated. b and c are maps drawn from images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. The yellow arrows mark position-velocity changes in the STrD. The STrD trapped winds and created a long cell that generated the Great Red Spot. Image Credit: Sánchez-Lavega et al. 2024.

The simulations show that over time, the GRS would rotate more rapidly as it shrank and became more coherent and compact until the elongated cell more closely resembled the current GRS. Since that’s what the GRS appears like now, the researchers settled on this explanation.

That process likely began in the mid-1800s when the GRS was much larger than it is now. That leads to the conclusion that the GRS is only about 150 years old.

Evan Gough

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