Jupiter

In this image taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope on April 16, 2006, Jupiter's Great Red Spot can be seen on the right. (I. de Pater and M. Wong / NASA/European Space Agency)

Scientists may have figured out why Jupiter’s Great Red Spot -- the massive storm that’s two to three times the size of Earth -- has stuck around for so long, and the finding may give us more insight into similar vortices on Earth and the formation of stars and planets.

The Red Spot has been around for centuries, and scientists didn’t know why. Their theories led them to believe the vortex should have disappeared after decades, not stuck around for hundreds of years.

So Pedram Hassanzadeh, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, and Philip Marcus, a professor of fluid dynamics at UC Berkeley, decided to try to figure out why the Red Spot had endured. They built a high-resolution 3-D model and discovered that vertical flows of gases in the storm were key to its longevity.

"In the past, researchers either ignored the vertical flow because they thought it was not important," Hassanzadeh said in a statement, "or they used simpler equations because it was so difficult to model."

Much of the research of vortices has focused on horizontal flows, which give a vortex most of its energy. But Hassanzadeh and Marcus found that vertical flows help the Red Spot regain energy by transporting hot and cold gases to the vortex’s center. The model they built also predicts that the Red Spot pulls in winds from high-speed jet streams.

And, as other scientists have previously observed, Hassanzadeh and Marcus believe the vortex also absorbs some smaller vortices. These three forces appear to be helping the Red Spot stay alive.

The function of vertical flows in the Red Spot also may explain why Earth’s oceanic vortices can last for years. In those vortices, vertical flows lift nutrients to the surface.

Additionally, as Marcus told Space.com, vortices that have physics resembling those of the Great Red Spot are thought to help stars and planets form, "which would require them to last for several million years.”

Both types of vortices, the astrophysical and those in the ocean, face processes that cause them to dissipate; the mechanism behind the Red Spot provides "a very plausible explanation" for their longevity.

laura.davis@latimes.com

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