The Hubble Space Telescope has been enlisted as a cosmic weather satellite, providing NASA with unprecedented details about the turbulent storms encompassing Jupiter.
Using a series of highly detailed snapshots from the orbiting observatory’s Wide Field Camera, scientists have generated two enormous global maps of the rotating gas giant over a 10-hour period.
“Every time we look at Jupiter, we get tantalizing hints that something really exciting is going on,” said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland said in a press statement. “This time is no exception.”
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot—a hurricane at least twice the size of Earth—never fails to excite observers. The cosmic cyclone appears to be taking on a more round shape, shrinking by about 240 kilometers (150 miles) in just the past year. And, as the giant storm continues to abate, the solar system’s most famous planetary blemish is shifting in color from red to orange.
The most surprising sight, though, is a long wispy filament that spans nearly the entire width of the vortex. Scientists have yet to identify the object, which is being twisted and turned by winds clocking in at 150 meters per second (330 miles per hour).
Soon, we’ll have regular weather reports on the other gas giants, as scientists plan to use Hubble to produce similar images of Uranus and Neptune on an annual basis. It’s part of an initiative that NASA has dubbed the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy program.
“The collection of maps that we will build up over time will not only help scientists understand the atmospheres of our giant planets, but also the atmospheres of planets being discovered around other stars, and Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, too,” says Michael H. Wong of the Department of Astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley.
See for Yourself
Backyard sky-watchers can also spot Jupiter and its Great Red Spot.
Finding the largest planet in the solar system with your unaided eyes is a breeze because it is so brilliant in the sky.
Just look for a second brightest star rising at dawn above the eastern horizon.
As an added bonus, Jupiter will be just below Venus, which is the brightest star-like object in the morning sky these days.
Also joining very close to Jupiter will be Mars, appearing as a fainter red star, just above it. In fact, the two planets are making their closest pairing until 2018, separated by less than one degree—equal to the width of your thumb at arm’s length.
While to the naked eye Jupiter, 918 million kilometers (570 million miles) away, looks like a brilliant yellow star, a pair of steadily held binoculars will reveal its four Galilean moons. They will appear lined up like a row of ducks beside the planetary disk.
Your views get even better with a small telescope, which can reveal the planet’s many festoons, knots, tendrils, and turbulent spots in the upper cloud deck of the planet, inside both the polar regions and the brown-colored equatorial belts. At higher magnifications, if you time your observations just right, you will even see hints of the famous Great Red (Orange?) Spot.
Amazing to think that this storm may have been brewing since the time of Galileo and you can see it tonight from your own backyard.