Hello, friends! Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z! For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space. If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more. In today’s post, G is for…
THE GREAT RED SPOT
Humanity is struggling right now. There’s war and bigotry. There’s disease and poverty and climate change. Despite these problems, I still have tremendous hope for the future. I still believe that we can work past our current problems and build a better future for ourselves and for our planet. But when I think of this better and brighter future, there’s still one thing I worry about. It’s a minor thing, but still… I worry: what’s going to happen to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot? Will it still be there in the future, or will it slowly fade away and disappear?
In the late 1800’s, the Great Red Spot was observed to be approximately 50,000 kilometers wide. For comparison, the entire Earth is only 13,000 kilometers in diameter. But by 1979, when NASA’s Voyager space probes arrived at Jupiter, the Great Red Spot had shrunk to a mere 23,000 kilometers in width. It was less than half the size it once was! And today, it’s only 16,000 kilometers wide. You see now why I’m worried.
I get a bit frustrated with news reports declaring that the Great Red Spot is certain to disappear. I also get annoyed with news reports saying it’s certain not to disappear. The popular press goes back and forth on this. It’s sort of like those news reports you’ll hear about whether or not eggs are good for you. First they’re good, then they’re bad, then they’re good if you cook them this way, then they’re still bad no matter how you cook them. In a similar way, first the Great Red Spot is disappearing, then it isn’t, then it is again, and so on.
I think the popular press just doesn’t understand what it means when scientific research gets published. Published research is best understood as part of an ongoing conversation. One group of astronomers says they believe the Great Red Spot is disappearing for reasons X, Y, and Z. Then another group of astronomers say they think it will endure for reasons A, B, and C. Then maybe another group will contribute reasons J, K, and L to the discussion. This back and forth discussion continues on and on in the pages of scientific journals, until some sort of scientific consensus is reached (or until the Great Red Spot actually disappears—that would also settle the debate).
But the popular press always seems to latch onto one published paper and present it to the general public as if it is the final word on the matter, as if it is a proclamation of scientifically proven fact. That is until they latch onto the next published paper and present that as the final word.
So what’s really going to happen to the Great Red Spot? Well, it’s undeniable that it has shrunk significantly over that last century or so. Maybe it will keep shrinking until it’s gone, or maybe it’ll pick up steam again and start to expand once more. Maybe the Great Red Spot goes through century-long phases of shrinking and expanding. Maybe we just haven’t been observing it long enough to know that. Scientists are still studying this issue, comparing and contrasting their findings, and debating what it all means. That’s often the way with science (and I hope you’ll keep that in mind the next time you see a news report that begins with the words “According to a new scientific study…”).
Even without the Great Red Spot, Jupiter would be an awe-inspiring sight. I do hope, though, that it will still be there for all those future colonists on Callisto to see and enjoy.
Want to Learn More?
I found a few relatively recent articles that talk about the Great Red Spot and why it might or might not disappear. These articles are, in my opinion, more responsible in how they present their information than other articles I’ve seen.
- “Jupiter: Mission Unveils the Depth and Structure of Planet’s Shrinking Red Spot and Colorful Bands” from The Conversation.
- “NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Finds Just How Deep Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Goes” from The Verge
- “The Shape of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is Changing, Here’s Why” from The Planetary Society.