A team of astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have found previously unseen structures and activity in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. The region observed in the study using the Webb Telescope is located right above the Great Red Spot. According to NASA, the Great Red Spot is the largest storm in the solar system, twice as big as Earth, and is believed to have been raging for at least 300 years.

The upper atmosphere of Jupiter is the interface between the planet’s magnetic field and the underlying atmosphere. It’s within Jupiter’s upper atmosphere that its aurorae can be seen. The structures of the upper atmosphere towards the planet’s equator, however, are influenced by sunlight, and thus harder to observe.

In July 2022, the Great Red Spot of Jupiter was observed by Webb’s Near-InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSpec) using the instrument’s Integral Field Unit capabilities. The team was surprised to discover that the upper atmosphere hosts a variety of intricate structures, including dark arcs and bright spots, across the entire field of view. 

“We thought this region, perhaps naively, would be boring. It is just as interesting as the northern lights, if not more so. Jupiter never ceases to surprise,” planetary scientist Henrik Melin of the University of Leicester said in a statement. 

See the images here:


Although the light emitted from this region is driven by sunlight, the team suggested there must be another mechanism altering the shape and structure of the upper atmosphere. 

”One way in which you can change this structure is by gravity waves – similar to waves crashing on a beach, creating ripples in the sand. These waves are generated deep in the turbulent lower atmosphere, all around the Great Red Spot, and they can travel up in altitude, changing the structure and emissions of the upper atmosphere, ” said Mr Melin. 

The team further explained that these atmospheric waves can be observed on Earth on occasion, however, they are much weaker than those observed on Jupiter by Webb.

The scientists hope to investigate these patterns in more detail and understand how Jupiter’s upper atmosphere changes over time. hey also hope that these findings will inform the upcoming ESA Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission, where a spacecraft named Juice will study Jupiter and its moons Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa.

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