Astronomers discover Great Cold Spot on Jupiter

Astronomers have discovered a massive aurorae-generated weather system, dubbed the Great Cold Spot, on Jupiter. Comparable in scale to the planet’s famous Great Red Spot, the phenomenon may have existed for thousands of years and is the first direct evidence of a sustained weather system generated by polar aurorae, opening the possibility of similar phenomena on other planets.

Observed by University of Leicester astronomers as a localised dark spot that is up to 24,000km tall and 12,000km wide, the spot is located in the planet’s thin high-altitude thermosphere. It is thought to bearound 200 Kelvin cooler than the surrounding atmosphere, which has a temperature range of between 700K (426°C) and 1000K (726°C).

“This is the first time any weather feature in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere has been observed away from the planet’s bright aurorae,” said study lead author Dr Tom Stallard, associate professor in Planetary Astronomy at the University of Leicester.

“The Great Cold Spot is much more volatile than the slowly changing Great Red Spot, changing dramatically in shape and size over only a few days and weeks, but it has re-appeared for as long as we have data to search for it, for over 15 years.  That suggests that it continually reforms itself, and as a result it might be as old as the aurorae that form it – perhaps many thousands of years old.”

The phenomenon is thought to be caused by the magnetic field of the planet, with Jupiter’s polar aurorae pushing energy into the atmosphere in the form of heat flowing around the planet. This push creates a cooling region in the thermosphere; the boundary layer between the underlying atmosphere and the vacuum of space.

The Great Cold Spot was found by using the CRIRES instrument on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to observe spectral emissions of H3+, an ion of hydrogen present in large amounts in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  With the ion observed, the astronomers were able to map the mean temperature and density of the planet’s atmosphere.

The team was then able to compare its map to images of H3+ emission from Jupiter’s ionosphere taken by NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility from 1995 to 2000. By combining images taken over set periods of time, including over 13,000 images taken over more than 40 nights by the InfraRed Telescope Facility, the team was able to find the Cold Spot as a dark area in Jupiter’s hot upper atmosphere.

The changing shape of the newly discovered Great Cold Spot, as observed over time. Image courtesy of the University of Leicester. Featured image courtesy of NASA

“What is surprising at Jupiter is that, unlike weather systems on Earth, the Great Cold Spot has been observed at the same place across 15 years. That makes it more comparable to weather systems in Jupiter’s lower atmosphere, like the Great Red Spot,” added Stallard, who is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

“Observations and modelling of Earth’s upper atmosphere have shown that, on the short term, there may be changes in the temperature and density of the upper atmosphere.”

The team now hopes to use what was learnt of the Cold Spot to search for other such features that may be hidden in the gas giant’s atmosphere.

The study, which is published in Geophysical Research Letters, is available in full online.

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Stronger in old age: Stem cell research paves way for muscle-building medication

It could in the future be possible to take medication that will allow you to build muscle, even when you are in old age.

This is due to the findings of research at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that large, and wholly unexpected, amounts of mutations in muscle stem cells blocks their ability to regenerate cells.

“What is most surprising is the high number of mutations. We have seen how a healthy 70-year-old has accumulated more than 1,000 mutations in each stem cell in the muscle, and that these mutations are not random but there are certain regions that are better protected,” said Maria Eriksson, professor at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet.

With this knowledge, researchers could develop therapies that would encourage such regeneration, and so allow older people to rebuild lost muscle.

“We can demonstrate that this protection diminishes the older you become, indicating an impairment in the cell’s capacity to repair their DNA. And this is something we should be able to influence with new drugs,” explained Eriksson.

The landmark research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, involved the use of single stem cells, which were cultivated to provide enough DNA for whole genome sequencing – a medical first for this part of the body.

“We achieved this in the skeletal muscle tissue, which is absolutely unique. We have also found that there is very little overlap of mutations, despite the cells being located close to each other, representing an extremely complex mutational burden,” said study first author Irene Franco, a postdoc in Eriksson’s research group.

While a significant step, the research is now being expanded to look at whether exercise affects the number of mutations – a potentially vital factor in understand why and how these mutations occur.

“We aim to discover whether it is possible to individually influence the burden of mutations. Our results may be beneficial for the development of exercise programmes, particularly those designed for an ageing population,” said Eriksson.

The research is one of a host of projects being conducted across the world that have potential impacts on ageing, an area that was long ignored by much of the scientific community, but is now garnering increased support.

If many – or even a fair minority – of these findings eventually become the basis of therapeutics, it could be transformative for old age in the future, allowing people to remain healthier for far later in life and potentially even leading to longer life expectancies.