Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Jupiter's Giant Red Spot has a New Little Brother!

Back around 1916, two small (we're talking half the size of Earth here), but not uncommon, little white oval-shaped storms were observed close together in Jupiter's southern hemisphere. In 1939, a third similar storm appeared, and while interesting, it wasn't what you'd really call news, especially if a nearby and much bigger astronomical item was distracting you at the time — The Great Red Spot (GRS). It would've been understandable; after all, the GRS storm is almost three times the size of the Earth, has winds in excess of 250 miles per hour, and has had people wondering at it for well over 400 years — ever since Giovanni Cassini and Robert Hooke first trained their telescopes on it between 1662 and 1670.

In what would be comparatively considered a blink of an eye, between 1998 and 2001, and while almost no one was watching, Jupiter was brewing up a surprise for planet watchers like me. By 2000, those three little white cyclones had merged together into one big flattened oval measuring about twice the diameter of the earth and about 7,500 miles tall. Since its formation, it's grown to about half the size of its cousin — the Great Red Spot — but it's doubtful that it'll get much larger because of the opposing bands of jet stream winds shepherding it tightly to the north and south.

Even more interestingly, it's recently begun taking on its older cousin's coloring, indicating that it's whipping up material from Jupiter's lower atmosphere while it hovers high above it. The effected matter changes color after it is sucked up from below, then is chemically transformed by solar radiation and ultraviolet light. In November of 2005, astronomers noticed that it was shifting hue. By December of 2005, it had taken on a brownish color and has since turned to the same color as the GRS, possibly because it's pulling material from the same atmospheric layer as its bigger companion.

Lately, "Junior" has been displaying some pale white clouds in its center, indicating some strong convective winds and most likely a huge thunderstorm. It has also been speculated that Jupiter may be going through its own cycle of global warming and climate changes. This would explain why the storms are developing faster.

Right now, Jupiter has orbited around to the opposite side of the sun from us (at a distance of about 500,000,000 miles from Earth), presenting more of its face to sunlight. It is becoming brilliant enough to make it the brightest object in the night sky (except for the moon, of course) at -2.4 magnitude and almost impossible to miss in the southern sky just after the sun sets. You should be able to spot it with a decent pair of binoculars, but I'd recommend even a cheap department store telescope to get one hell of a show. Being able to glimpse the Great Red Spot will depend on whether it has rotated into view; a little daily checking will probably be necessary.

Astronomers are having a field day observing the conditions of how the Great Red Spot was possibly formed thousands of years ago. Even more anticipation is brewing because the two are drifting toward each other, resulting in a close encounter without being on a collision course. As Junior drifts east, the GRS is drifting west and they should be at their closest pass to each other in the first weeks of July.

The photos here were taken between April and May of this year. NASA enhanced the colors and I sharpened them even further and added a little more intensity.

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