As a life-long astronomy nerd, waking up to this headline all over the web made me gasp out loud (and I don’t surprise easily). I mean, seriously: Jupiter’s famous “Great Red Spot” — the massive, rust-colored megastorm wider than the entire Earth — is going away? Maybe even within my lifetime?
Sure, storms of any kind are sort of giant chaos machines, and notoriously unpredictable — so there may have been a period in recorded history where Jupiter’s largest storm had not yet formed, at least not as we see it in telescopes today (a dark red oval slightly south of the planet’s equator). The first noteworthy account of a similar oval spot dates back to the late 17th century — observed by famed astronomer Giovanni Cassini — but it’s only been documented as we know it today since 1830.
Finally, in 1979, Voyager 1 captured the first images of this storm in motion, swirling like an eternal cosmic whirlpool. On a good night during a period when Jupiter’s orbit brings it closer to Earth, you can even see the storm yourself, just with a consumer telescope.
But now, according to NASA experts, the Great Red Spot (GRS) may only have a couple more decades of life left.
They’ve already watched it shrink significantly over the past four decades (the upper cloud surface area was only half 1979’s observed size by 2004), though it still looked pretty damned massive as of last July, when NASA’s Juno spacecraft made its historic flyby. Here’s a beautiful close-up from that mission…
In fact, it was a key member of the Juno mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Glenn Orton, who told Business Insider that the Great Red Spot is soon to become the “Great Red Memory”… perhaps even within the next 20 years or so.
“Think of the GRS as a spinning wheel that keeps on spinning because it’s caught between two conveyor belts that are moving in opposite directions,” Orton explained. “The GRS is stable and long-lived, because it’s ‘wedged’ between two jet streams that are moving in opposite directions.” He theorizes these high-energy streams have been “feeding” the storm energy for centuries.
But despite being the largest storm ever seen in the Solar System, the GRS may now be rapidly losing that energy, and it’s clearly shrinking in size as a result… once it was twice Earth’s diameter; it’s now reduced by nearly half that.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Orton concluded.