The ruddy color of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is likely a product of simple chemicals being broken apart by sunlight in the planet’s upper atmosphere, according to a new analysis of data from NASA’s Cassini mission. The results contradict the other leading theory for the origin of the spot’s striking color — that the reddish chemicals come from beneath Jupiter’s clouds.
The results are being presented this week by Kevin Baines, a Cassini team scientist based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Science Meeting in Tucson, Arizona.
Baines and JPL colleagues Bob Carlson and Tom Momary arrived at their conclusions using a combination of data from Cassini’s December 2000 Jupiter flyby and laboratory experiments.
In the lab, the researchers blasted ammonia and acetylene gases — chemicals known to exist on Jupiter — with ultraviolet light, to simulate the sun’s effects on these materials at the extreme heights of clouds in the Great Red Spot. This produced a reddish material, which the team compared to the Great Red Spot as observed by Cassini’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS). They found that the light-scattering properties of their red concoction nicely matched a model of the Great Red Spot in which the red-colored material is confined to the uppermost reaches of the giant cyclone-like feature.
“Our models suggest most of the Great Red Spot is actually pretty bland in color, beneath the upper cloud layer of reddish material,” said Baines. “Under the reddish ‘sunburn’ the clouds are probably whitish or grayish.”