James Webb Observes Mysterious Structures Above Jupiter's Great Red Spot

Bored to Floored

The remarkable James Webb Space Telescope has been used to image the furthest reaches of the cosmos. But in a change of pace, astronomers have leveraged its immense powers on a target far closer to home: the mighty planet Jupiter — and in so doing, they've found mysterious features and structures on the gas giant that have never been seen before, let alone in the astounding fidelity of the James Webb.

As detailed in a study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the scientists observed a region of atmosphere hovering above Jupiter's iconic Great Red Spot, an enormous storm big enough to swallow the Earth, and the largest in the solar system.

Despite its awesome proportions, though, this part of the atmosphere has gone overlooked by astronomers, who had previously written it off as uninteresting. Now, they're happy to admit that they were dead wrong.

"We thought this region, perhaps naively, would be really boring," study lead author Henrik Melin of the University of Leicester said in a statement about the work. "It is in fact just as interesting as the northern lights, if not more so," he added. "Jupiter never ceases to surprise."

Glow Up

Those lights that Melin alluded to engild Jupiter's northern and southern poles and are easily visible. But there's a more subtle glow subsumed within the upper atmosphere that's proved difficult for ground-based telescopes to observe. It may not be nearly as shiny, but elusiveness is its own allure.

Thankfully, the James Webb is uniquely well suited to tackle this. It's in orbit in clear space around the Sun, and is equipped with state-of-the-art infrared sensors, like its Near-InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSPEC) instrument, that can divulge the secrets emitted in even the faintest sources of light.

Case in point, the researchers found all sorts of oddities lurking in observations taken in July 2022, including what the European Space Agency has described as intricate structures, "dark arcs," and "bright spots."

Sandwich Zone

As the boundary between Jupiter's lower atmosphere and its powerful magnetic field, the gas giant's upper atmosphere plays host to spectacular energetic interactions. The northern and southern lights are thought to be caused by the ejection of volcanic material on its moon Io.

But the researchers suspect that something else altogether is causing the glow above the Great Red Spot: powerful gravitational interactions rarely seen on Earth.

"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," Henrik said. "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."

With followup observations, the astronomers hope to reveal how these waves travel through Jupiter's atmosphere.

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