EPSC08/04: Diffusion caused Jupiter’s Red Spot to colour up
October 7, 2008


Diffusion caused Jupiter’s Red Spot Junior to colour up

A study has given new insights into why Oval BA, a giant anticyclone on Jupiter also known as Red Spot Junior, suddenly turned from white to red in a period of just a few months.

Dr Santiago Pérez-Hoyos, of the Planetary Science Group of the University of the Basque Country in Spain, is presenting the findings at the European Planetary Science Congress in Münster on Monday 22nd September.

“Our group has made an in-depth analysis of all the aspects regarding the history and evolution of Oval BA. The most strongly reddened region was an annulus around its centre. However, when we calibrated images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, we found that it didn’t actually alter in red or infrared wavelengths during the period. Instead, it became darker in blue and ultraviolet wavelengths, which made it appear visually redder,” said Dr Pérez-Hoyos.

Oval BA was formed in 2000 by the merger of smaller vortices called the White Ovals in a chain of collisions that started back in 1998. The apparent reddening was first reported by amateur astronomers in early 2006, but it was not until April that professional astronomers were able to image the impressive alteration of the second largest storm in the Solar System after the Great Red Spot (GRS).

Using data from Cassini, the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s New Horizons mission and computer models the Planetary Science Group analysed possible causes for the colour change, including alterations to dynamical, photochemical and diffusion processes.

Dr Pérez-Hoyos said, “The most likely cause appears to be an upward and inward diffusion of either a coloured compound or a coating vapour that may interact later with high energy solar photons at the upper levels of Oval BA.”

Comparing Oval BA with the GRS, the group found that the GRS is still redder than BA, most likely because it is higher in Jupiter’s atmosphere, thicker and contains a higher concentration of the mysterious unknown chemical agents (cromophores) that give Jupiter its browny-red colour.

The group were able to rule out that the reddening was caused by any dynamical processes. They found no change to the strength of the “hurricane” and, although some changes in the circulation around the spot had taken place, the maximum wind speeds (which may range up to 400 kilometres per hour or more) were consistent with measurements previous to 2000 of the
Oval or its white predecessors.

The group modelled the wind flow in detail using high resolution simulations, in order to understand why the red material may be confined to the annulus region and how the colour change happened in the observed time scales. The model accounts well for the temperature and wind structure inside the oval BA.

Models also showed that the change could not be attributed to interactions of Oval BA with the GRS, which were relatively close at the time. The flow around both vortices is in the zonal directions and is so strong that separates both storms

The oval height did not change over the period and there were no large changes in the temperature gradient of the oval.

Dr Pérez-Hoyos said, “There is much to be understood about this problem yet. Future spacecraft missions and a continuous observation of the planet (as done by amateur astronomers) will surely give us new clues on the behaviour of Jupiter’s atmosphere that will result in a better understanding of it.”


Click on images for high-resolution versions

Figure 1. High quality amateur observations of Jupiter from the IOPW database: (a) 2005 April 29, Damian Peach; (b) 2006 April 12, Damian Peach; (c) 2006 April 24, Damian Peach; (d) 2006 May 28, Christopher Go; (e) 2007 May 26, Damian Peach; (f) 2008 May 8, Anthony Wesley.


Figure 2: Comparison of the Oval BA color structure from the ultraviolet (top) to the near infrared (bottom) from HST ACS observations. The oval changed its color structure from 2005 to 2006 only in blue colors (three top rows).


Figure 3: High-resolution measurements of the wind field around oval BA from New Horizons spacecraft observations.


Figure 4: Non-linear dynamical simulations comparing its morphology with some pictures of the “real” oval BA.



Oval BA
The Oval BA is an enormous anticyclone (high-pressure system) that may be compared to a colossal hurricane in the Earth’s atmosphere. Oval BA is half the size of the Great Red Spot and is large enough to contain the Earth inside it.

EPSC 2008 is organised by Europlanet, the European Planetology Network in association with the European Geosciences Union and the Westfälische Wilhelms Universität, Münster.
For further details, see the meeting website:

EuroPlaNet co-ordinates activities in Planetary Sciences in order to achieve a long-term integration of this discipline in Europe.

The objectives are to:
1) increase the productivity of planetary projects with European investment, with emphasis on major planetary exploration missions;
2) initiate a long-term integration of the European planetary science community;
3) improve European scientific competitiveness, develop and spread expertise in this research area;
4) improve public understanding of planetary environments.

Europlanet Project website: http://europlanet.cesr.fr/
Europlanet Outreach website: http://www.europlanet-eu.org/

Dr Santiago Pérez-Hoyos
Dpto. Fisico Aplicada I, ETS Ingenieria
Universidad del Pais Vasco