With the exception of Saturn and its iconic rings, Jupiter is probably the most recognizable planet in our Solar System. Its long, thick stripes are unlike anything else in our little celestial neighborhood, but its the massive swirling storm called the Great Red Spot that really catches our eyes. It’s been raging for centuries, but that might be about to change, as scientists now believe that the storm is actually dying down, and could disappear entirely within a couple of decades.
The incredibly intense storm, which is large enough that it could swallow Earth whole, is being closely watched by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Juno has been orbiting Jupiter for over six years, and in since arriving it’s made some stunning observations regarding the planet’s impressive weather patterns. The Great Red Spot is a result of powerful jet streams which spin in opposite directions, but they won’t be able to keep churning forever.
“In truth, the GRS has been shrinking for a long time,” Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told Business Insider. The storm was once as large as four times the diameter of Earth, but more recent observations have shown that it’s rapidly losing steam. “Now it’s something like 13 degrees wide in longitude and only 1.3 times the size of the Earth,” Orton says. “Nothing lasts forever.”
Late last year, Juno revealed some surprising information about the huge storm, including how deep into the planet it goes. The data showed that the storm is up to 100 times deeper than Earth’s oceans, and the base of the storm is significantly hotter than the rapidly-moving winds we see in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. Researchers still don’t know many of the specifics of what drives the storm, but it’s obvious that it’s beginning to breathe its dying gasps. Within the next decade or two, the storm is likely to die out completely.
Juno makes its observations during what are known as “science passes,” which is just a fancy way of saying that all of its instruments are up and running as it cruises around the planet. The spacecraft’s current planned mission is slated to wrap up in less than a year, but if it’s still returning valuable data there’s a good chance that it will get an extended mission which will keep it up and running for a while longer.