NASA's Juno spacecraft, which launched in 2011, recently made two passes over Jupiter's Great Red Spot, the circular storm that rages in perpetuity on the gas giant's surface. The probe revealed that the storm extends for hundreds of miles beneath the planet's gaseous surface, a press statement from NASA reveals.
Scientists have long known that the Great Red Spot has a diameter of 10,000 miles (16,093 km), meaning that the Earth itself could fit inside the storm. But, until recently, they could only really speculate at the depth of the red circle.
Uncovering the mysteries of a monstrous storm
In 2019, NASA decided to change their Juno spacecraft's trajectory. The Jupiter probe has been on a wide orbit around the planet since 2016, and it had mainly been trained on assessing the composition of the gas giant and analyzing its north and south poles, which had never been seen before. However, in 2019 the space agency redirected Juno to pass over the Great Red Spot twice, to collect data on the gargantuan storm.
Thanks to those two passes, NASA scientists now know the depth of the Great Red Spot, within a fairly accurate range. In a paper published in Science, researchers on the project revealed that the storm has a depth of between 186 and 310 miles (300 to 500 km). In an interview with The Verge, Yohai Kaspi, co-investigator on the project, said "that means it’s a gigantic storm. If you would put this storm on Earth, it would extend all the way to the [International Space Station]. So it’s just a monster."
We now have a 3D view of Jupiter like never before
To find the depth, the NASA team used sensors on Juno to measure the spot's gravitational field. This showed that the storm extended as far as 310 miles. The data collected was then combined with previous microwave measurements taken by the probe in 2017, showing that the storm must reach a depth of at least 186 miles.
Surprisingly, though the Great Red Spot has an impressive depth, it doesn't reach as far under Jupiter's surface as jet streams also analyzed by Juno that go 2,000 miles (roughly 3,200 km) under the planet's surface.
Further measurements in the future will help the scientific community to gain an even better understanding of the structures of Jupiter. For now, our understanding of the gas giant has gained a massive boost thanks to the three-dimensional view provided by the sensors aboard NASA's Juno spacecraft.
As Scott Bolton, the principal Juno investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio puts it, "we're starting to put all these individual pieces together and getting our first real understanding of how Jupiter's beautiful and violent atmosphere works – in 3D."