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10 years ago NASA launched a Juno spacecraft to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. NASA says that Juno sent the information that explains the massive structure of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a gargantuan storm that has been circulating on the planet for centuries. The Verge writes that Juno passed the storm several times. It helped scientists to measure out that the spot doesn’t just exist on the upper surface, but it also reaches the planet’s surface and even goes deeper. 

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Image credit: theverge.com

The Great Red Spot’s diameter is about 16,000 kilometers which means our planet Earth could fit completely inside it. But scientists never fully understood how deep the Great Red Spot was. Was it just a surface-level event, or did it reach deep into Jupiter?

The depth of the storm between 300 and 500 kilometers

Juno has two science instruments equipped that helped planetary researchers to figure out a clear range for the spot. They put the depth of the storm between 300 and 500 kilometers, or between 186 and 310 miles deep, according to research published in Science. In comparison with the width, these numbers are nothing, but the depth still makes this a unique weather event. “That means it’s a gigantic storm,” Yohai Kaspi, a Juno co-investigator at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, tells The Verge. “If you would put this storm on Earth, it would extend all the way to the space station. So it’s just a monster.”

Right until these days everything we could do to study the surface of Jupiter was to examine it from afar. Scientists could use NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around Earth or other ground-based telescopes to study the Great Red Spot. This method helped scientists to determine the storm’s width, but they could only speculate about the spot’s overall structure. “Some of them speculated that it was going to be very, very shallow, like we’re talking tens of kilometers,” Marzia Parisi, a research scientist on the Juno science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tells The Verge. “And some others, they thought, ‘Well, in theory, it could go as deep as to the core of Jupiter.’”

How the Juno mission started

In 2011 NASA launched the Juno spacecraft with a core mission to get to Jupiter as close as possible. And it did it. Juno spent five years traveling through deep space, and in 2016, the vehicle inserted itself into a very wide orbit around Jupiter, one that would take Juno close to the planet every 53 days. When Juno appeared in the closest spot to Jupiter it collected the majority of data together with the information that might be lingering inside the gas giant.

Juno Mission
Image credit: theverge.com

Juno is the first spacecraft to fly over Jupiter’s poles — areas on the planet that had never been seen before the mission began. But in 2019 scientists redirected a spacecraft to pass over the Great Red Spot so it can collect more information about what’s going on underneath the storm. 

During these passes, Juno measured the spot’s gravitational field in an attempt to figure out just how deep the storm goes. The Great Red Spot is so large that the Juno spacecraft can actually feel the small perturbations in gravity produced by the storm. Ultimately, the gravity signal revealed that the storm did not extend farther than 500 kilometers deep. Scientists then combined this info with previous microwave measurements taken by Juno back in 2017, which found that the storm extends at least as far as 300 kilometers deep. Those measurements put a pretty good maximum and minimum limit on the storm’s depth.

There are still some questions

As The Verge wrote in its article there are still some questions about the origin of the Great Red Spot structure. Jet streams surrounding the storm are deeper up to 3,000 kilometers into the planet. Juno also helped to pinpoint those measurements, and scientists aren’t sure why there’s a discrepancy there. “It’s surprising that it goes so deep… but it’s also surprising that it doesn’t go as deep as the jets,” Parisi says. “So something is happening at 500 kilometers that is basically dampening the Great Red Spot.”

But still thanks to Juno, scientists have a much more complete picture of the planet and its most famous storm than ever before. “Before, we just had this 2D view, just looking from the outside,” Kaspi says. “And now we have a complete three-dimensional view.”

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