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Scientists have solved the mystery of the solar system's largest storm

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There have likely been several Great Red Spots throughout Jupiter's history. Recent research has shown that the storm we can observe today is not the one recorded in the 17th century. Researchers also managed to determine its probable age and genesis.

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is the largest, longest-lasting and best-known storm in the solar system. This huge anticyclone is larger than the entire Earth, and its height exceeds 300 kilometers – for comparison, the most extensive tropical storms have a span of 15 km.

The storm can be seen with a small telescope, which is why it intrigued early astronomers. The first records of a large, clearly visible spot on Jupiter date back to the 17th century. According to the study, described in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the current Great Red Spot is a completely different – although similar – structure.

Spots on Jupiter

In 1655, Cassini – at the same latitude of Jupiter where the Great Red Spot is visible today – discovered a structure he called the “Permanent Spot”. Various astronomers observed it until 1713. Only in 1831 could the large, oval vortex be seen again. However, the observations were carried out irregularly, and for this reason experts have long wondered whether what Cassini saw was the same as what can be seen today.

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To solve the mystery of the origin and age of the Spot, scientists from the University of the Basque Country analyzed data from historical observations dating back to the 17th century. They also conducted computer simulations.

“Based on measurements of its size and motion, we have deduced that it is very unlikely that the current Great Red Spot is the 'permanent spot' described by Cassini,” said Agustín Sánchez-Lavega, who led the study. – The 'Permanent Stain' probably disappeared around the turn of the 17th and 19th centuries. We believe that the current Red Spot has existed for at least 190 years, he added.

The Great Red Spot in the lens of the Juno probeNASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill,

A giant storm cell

The simulations also showed how the Spot was created. It was believed that it could have formed in three ways. It could have developed into a superstorm, such as can sometimes be observed in Jupiter's atmosphere. The second hypothesis pointed to the merger of many smaller vortices formed at the junction of gas streams at different latitudes. In the third option, it was created by wind instability, which created an elongated atmospheric cell similar in shape to the Spot.

Calculations showed that in the first two cases a structure with a different shape than the observed one is created. The most likely mechanism is the transformation of the above-mentioned atmospheric cell, researchers believe.

In future studies, scientists want to solve the mystery of how the Spot has been shrinking since its formation and predict its future fate, including whether it will disappear like the spot seen by Cassini.

Main photo source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill,

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