NASA's "most ambitious and complex space observatory ever built", the James Webb Space Telescope, will use its infrared capabilities to study Jupiter's Great Red Spot.
In a bid to shed some light on the enigmatic storm and build upon data returned from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, the mission will 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 mission will enable the scientists 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.
Leigh Fletcher, a senior research fellow in planetary science at the University of Leicester, is lead scientist on the Webb telescope's observations of Jupiter's storm.
He said that by using MIRI to observe in the five to seven micrometre range could be revealing for the Great Red Spot, as no other mission has been able to observe Jupiter in that part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Observations in such wavelengths are also not possible from Earth, and so these wavelengths of light should allow the scientists to see unique chemical by-products of the storm, which would give insight into its composition.
"We'll be looking for signatures of any chemical compounds that are unique to the [Great Red Spot]...which could be responsible for the red chromophores," explained Fletcher, adding that chromophores are the parts of molecules responsible for their colour.
"If we don't see any unexpected chemistry or aerosol signatures...then the mystery of that red color may remain unresolved."
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. Fletcher said Webb might be able to gather data to support this.
"Any waves produced by the vigorous convective activity within the storm must pass through the stratosphere before they reach the ionosphere and thermosphere," he explained.
"So if they really do exist and are responsible for heating Jupiter's upper layers, hopefully we'll see evidence for their passage in our data."
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