Jupiter’s iconic storm is on the Webb telescope’s list of targets chosen by guaranteed time observers, scientists who helped develop the incredibly complex telescope and among the first to use it to observe the universe. One of the telescope’s science goals is to study planets, including the mysteries still held by the planets in our own solar system from Mars and beyond.
Now a team of researchers led by Leigh Fletcher, a senior research fellow in planetary science at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, and his team are part of a larger effort to study several targets in our solar system with Webb, spearheaded by astronomer Heidi Hammel.
“Webb’s infrared sensitivity provides a wonderful complement to Hubble visible-wavelength studies of the Great Red Spot,” explained Hammel. “Hubble images have revealed striking changes in the size of the Great Red Spot over the mission’s multi-decade-long lifetime.”
Fletcher and his team plan to use Webb’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) to create multispectral maps of the Great Red Spot and analyse its thermal, chemical and cloud structures. The scientists will be able to observe infrared wavelengths that could shed light on what causes the spot’s iconic colour, which is often attributed to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation interacting with nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus-bearing chemicals that are lifted from Jupiter’s deeper atmosphere by powerful atmospheric currents within the storm.
Fletcher explained that using MIRI to observe in the 5 to 7 micrometer range could be particularly revealing for the Great Red Spot, as no other mission has been able to observe Jupiter in that part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and observations in such wavelengths are not possible from Earth. Those wavelengths of light could allow the scientists to see unique chemical byproducts of the storm, which would give insight into its composition.
Webb’s observations may also help determine whether the Great Red Spot is generating heat and releasing it into Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, a phenomenon that could explain the high temperatures in that region. Recent NASA-funded research showed that colliding gravity waves and sound waves, produced by the storm, could generate the observed heat, and Fletcher said Webb might be able to gather data to support this.
Generations of astronomers have studied the Great Red Spot; the storm has been monitored since 1830, but it has possibly existed for more than 350 years.