Scientists may have discovered large amounts of water hidden deep beneath the surface of Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot. The discovery, which was made using ground-based telescopes, opens up the possibility that extremophile lifeforms could exist in the atmosphere of the enigmatic gas giant.
Jupiter is one of the most visually striking and scientifically fascinating planets in our solar system. It is twice as massive as all of the other planets in our solar system combined, and its surface plays host to mindbogglingly epic storms that have been known to rage for over a hundred years.
Whilst Earth-based observatories, orbital telescopes and unmanned probes such as NASA’s Juno spacecraft have greatly expanded our knowledge of Jupiter, the gas giant still harbors many secrets.
One of the long-standing mysteries surrounding Jupiter regards the amount of water contained in its hydrogen and helium dominated atmosphere. Jupiter’s eclectic family of 79 moons are predominantly made up of ice, and so it would make sense for the planet itself to contain significant amounts of water.
Discovering significant amounts of water in Jupiter’s gaseous atmosphere would help scientists understand the dynamic, turbulent nature of the planetary giant, as well providing insights into the formation of our solar system. On Earth, water is thought to have played a major factor in the emergence of life, and serves as the driving force for numerous critical atmospheric processes.
Scientists believe that water could fulfill the same role as a key atmospheric driver on Jupiter, albeit on a far greater scale. Furthermore, where there is water, there is the potential for life. Extremophiles have been discovered living in some of the most hostile environments known to exist on Earth. Whilst the emergence of life in Jupiter’s atmospheric clouds is difficult to imagine, it can’t be ruled out.
Finally, scientists cannot say for sure what lies at the planet’s heart. However, the discovery of significant amounts of water molecules residing deep within the atmosphere would suggest that the gas giant boasts a rocky, icy core, rather than a core comprised of a dense soup of super-hot material.
Scientists had previously attempted to estimate the amount of water hidden within the Jovian atmosphere by directing a probe to plunge into its surface. On December 7, 1995, NASA’s Galileo probe entered Jupiter, and transmitted a full 58 minutes of data before finally being crushed by extreme atmospheric pressures.
It was discovered that the region in which Galileo had taken the dive was much drier than expected. A satisfactory answer to the water question continued to elude planetary scientists, but new research is changing that.