Hubble Sees Changes in Jupiter’s Red Spot, a Weird Wisp and Rare Waves


Jupiter global map created from still images from the Hubble Space Telescope

It’s been widely reported,  including at Universe Today, that the apple of Jupiter’s eye, the iconic Great Red Spot (GRS), has been shrinking for decades. Even the rate of shrinkage has been steadily increasing.

Back in the late 1800s you could squeeze three Earths inside the GRS. Those were the days. Last May it measured just 10,250 miles (16,496 km) across, big enough for only 1.3 of us. 

And while new photos from the Hubble Space Telescope show that Jupiter’s swollen red eye has shrunk an additional 150 miles (240 km) since 2014, the good news is that the rate of shrinkage appears to be well, shrinking. The contraction of the GRS has been studied closely since the 1930s; even as recently as 1979, the Voyager spacecraft measured it at 14,500 miles (23,335 km) across. But the alarm sounded in 2012, when amateur astronomers discovered sudden increase in the rate of 580 miles (933 km) a year along with a shift in shape from oval to roughly circular.

For the moment, it appears that the GRS is holding steady, making for an even more interesting Jupiter observing season than usual. Already, the big planet dominates the eastern sky along with Venus on October mornings. Consider looking for changes in the Spot yourself in the coming months. A 6-inch or larger scope and determination are all you need.

Hubble photos of the Great Red Spot taken at on a first rotation (left frames) and 10 hours later (right frames) show the counterclockwise rotation of the newly-discovered filament or wisp inside the GRS. Credit:
Hubble photos of the Great Red Spot taken on a first rotation (left frames) and 10 hours later (right frames) show the counterclockwise rotation of the newly-discovered filament or wisp inside the GRS. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), M. Wong (UC Berkeley), and G. Orton (JPL-Caltech)

New imagery from the Hubble OPAL program also shows a curious wisp at the center of the Great Red Spot spanning almost the entire width of the hurricane-like vortex. This filamentary streamer rotates and twists throughout the 10-hour span of the Great Red Spot image sequence, drawn out by winds that are blowing at 335 mph (540 km/hr). Color-wise, the GRS remains orange, not red. Currently, the reddest features on the planet are the North Equatorial Belt and the occasional dark, oval “barges” (cyclonic storms) in the northern hemisphere.

The newly-found waves in Jupiter's atmosphere are located in regions where cyclones are common. They look like dark eyelashes. Credit:
The newly-found waves in Jupiter’s atmosphere are located in regions where cyclones and anticyclones are common. They look like dark eyelashes. A cyclone is a storm or system of winds that rotates around an area of low pressure. Anticyclones spin around areas of high pressure. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), M. Wong (UC Berkeley), and G. Orton (JPL-Caltech)

That’s not all. The photos uncovered a rare wave structure just north of Jupiter’s equator that’s only been seen once before and with difficulty by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1979. The scientists, whose findings are described in this just-published Astrophysical Journal paper, say it resembles an earthly atmospheric feature called a baroclinic wave, a large-scale meandering of the jet stream associated with developing storms.

Hubble view of Jupiter's barocyclonic clouds and those recorded earlier by Voyager 2. Credit:
Hubble view of Jupiter’s baroclinic waves on January 19, 2015 (top) and our only other view of them photographed by Voyager 2 in 1979. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), M. Wong (UC Berkeley), and G. Orton (JPL-Caltech)

Jupiter’s “current wave” riffles across a region rich with cyclonic and anticyclonic storms. The wave may originate in a clear layer beneath Jupiter’s clouds, only becoming visible when it propagates up into the cloud deck, according to the researchers. While it’s thought to be connected to storm formation in the Jovian atmosphere, it’s a mystery why the wave hasn’t been observed more often.

The OPAL program focuses on long-term observation of the atmospheres of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune until the end of the Saturn Cassini Mission and all four planets afterwords. We have to keep watch from Earth as no missions to Saturn and beyond are expected for quite some time. To date, Neptune and Uranus have already been observed with photos to appear (hopefully) soon in a public archive.

Red-faced Pluto Full of Surprises

Hey, Mars, you’ve got company. Looks like there’s a second “red planet” in the Solar System — Pluto. Color images returned from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, now just 10 days from its encounter with the dwarf planet, show a distinctly ruddy surface with patchy markings that strongly resemble Mars’ appearance in a small telescope.

Animation of Pluto rotating from photos taken by New Horizons two weeks before the flyby. Credit:
Animation of Pluto’s rotation from photos taken by New Horizons two weeks before the flyby. What are those four nearly parallel dark streaks? Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

On Mars, iron oxide or rust colors the planet’s soil, while Pluto’s coloration is likely caused by hydrocarbon molecules called tholins that are formed when cosmic rays and solar ultraviolet light interact with methane in Pluto’s atmosphere and on its surface. Airborne tholins fall out of the atmosphere and coat the surface with a reddish gunk.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Hörst Laboratory have produced complex chemical compounds called tholins, which may give Pluto its reddish hue. Credits: Chao He, Xinting Yu, Sydney Riemer, and Sarah Hörst, Johns Hopkins University
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Hörst Laboratory have produced complex chemical compounds called tholins, which may give Pluto its reddish hue.
Credits: Chao He, Xinting Yu, Sydney Riemer, and Sarah Hörst, Johns Hopkins University

A particular color or wavelength of UV light called Lyman-alpha is most effective at stimulating the chemical reactions that build hydrocarbons at Pluto. Recent measurements with New Horizons’ Alice instrument reveal the diffuse glow of Lyman-alpha light all around the dwarf planet coming from all directions of space, not just the Sun.

Since one of the main sources of Lyman-alpha light besides the Sun are regions of vigorous star formation in young galaxies, Pluto’s cosmetic rouge may originate in events happening millions of light years away.

Triton's pink too! Montage of Neptune's largest moon, Triton (1,683 miles in diameter) and the planet Neptune showing the moon's sublimating south polar cap (bottom) and enigmatic "cantaloupe terrain". Credit: NASA
Triton’s pink too! Montage of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton (1,683 miles in diameter) and the planet Neptune showing the moon’s sublimating south polar cap (bottom) and enigmatic “cantaloupe terrain”. Photo taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA

“Pluto’s reddish color has been known for decades, but New Horizons is now allowing us to correlate the color of different places on the surface with their geology and soon, with their compositions,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

Tholins have been found on other bodies in the outer Solar System, including Titan and Triton, the largest moons of Saturn and Neptune, respectively, and made in laboratory experiments that simulate the atmospheres of those bodies.

True color photos showing the two hemispheres of Pluto. At right, you can clearly see the four streaks in a row. New Horizons will approach fly by the hemisphere on the left side.
True color photos showing the two hemispheres of Pluto photographed on June 27, 2015. At left, a large, dark red patch is visible. The four streaks in a row are seen at right. New Horizons will fly by the hemisphere in the left image. Credit:  NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

As you study the photos and animation, you’ll notice that Pluto’s largest dark spot is redder than the most of the surface; you also can’ help but wonder what’s going on with those four evenly-spaced dark streaks in the equatorial zone. When I first saw them, my reaction was “no way!” They look so neatly lined up I assumed it was an image artifact, but after seeing the rotating movie, maybe not. It’s more likely that low resolution enhances the appearance of alignment.

Dark streaks on Triton formed by deposits from ice or cryovolcanos. Credit: NASA
Dark streaks on Triton deposited downwind from ice or cryovolcanos. Credit: NASA

But what are they? Located as they are on the Charon-facing side of Pluto, they may be related to long-ago tidal stresses induced by each body on the other as they slowly settled into their current tidally-locked embrace or something as current as seasonal change.

Voyager 2 photographed cyrovolcanos at Triton during its 1989 flyby of the Neptune system. Nitrogen geysers and plumes of gas and ice as high as 5 miles (8 km) were seen erupting from active volcanoes, leaving dark streaks on its icy surface.

Images showing the increase in detail from late June through July 1 as New Horizons homes in on Pluto. Credit:
Images showing the increase in detail from late June through July 1 as New Horizons homes in on Pluto. That possible big crater (seen in bottom middle photo) now looks more like a large, dark patch, BUT we still don’t know for sure what it is. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Björn Jónsson
It's instructive to compare these images based on observations with the Hubble Space Telescope made well before New Horizons's arrival. They appear to record the large dark spot and possible the multiple streaks. Credit: NASA/ESA
It’s instructive to compare these images, based on observations with the Hubble Space Telescope made well before New Horizons’s arrival, with current photos. They appear to record the large dark spot and possibly the multiple streaks. Credit: NASA/ESA

Seasonal heating from the Sun is the most likely cause for Triton’s eruptions; Pluto’s dark streaks may have a similar origin.

Animation of Pluto and Charon from images taken between June 23 and June 29. Credit:
Animation of Pluto and Charon from images taken between June 23 and June 29. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWR
To give you a better picture in your head how big these small bodies are, Pluto and Charon would both fit within the United States with room to spare. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP)
To better picture in your head how big these small bodies really are, Pluto and Charon would both fit within the United States with room to spare. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP)

Today, New Horizons lies just 7.4 million miles (11.9 million km) from its target. Sharpness and detail visible will rapidly improve in just a few days.

“Even at this resolution, Pluto looks like no other world in our Solar System,” said mission scientist Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder in a recent press release.

Indeed!

25 Years Since Voyager’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ Images

A quarter of a century has passed since NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft snapped the iconic image of Earth known as the “Pale Blue Dot” that shows all of humanity as merely a tiny point of light.

The outward bound Voyager 1 space probe took the ‘pale blue dot’ image of Earth 25 years ago on Valentine’s Day, on Feb. 14, 1990 when it looked back from its unique perch beyond the orbit of Neptune to capture the first ever “portrait” of the solar system from its outer realms.

Voyager 1 was 4 billion miles from Earth, 40 astronomical units (AU) from the sun and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic at that moment.

The idea for the images came from the world famous astronomer Carl Sagan, who was a member of the Voyager imaging team at the time.

He head the idea of pointing the spacecraft back toward its home for a last look as a way to inspire humanity. And to do so before the imaging system was shut down permanently thereafter to repurpose the computer controlling it, save on energy consumption and extend the probes lifetime, because it was so far away from any celestial objects.

Sagan later published a well known and regarded book in 1994 titled “Pale Blue Dot,” that refers to the image of Earth in Voyagers series.

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed "Pale Blue Dot," is a part of the first ever "portrait" of the solar system taken by Voyager 1 on Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14, 1990.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed “Pale Blue Dot,” is a part of the first ever “portrait” of the solar system taken by Voyager 1 on Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14, 1990. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Twenty-five years ago, Voyager 1 looked back toward Earth and saw a ‘pale blue dot,’ ” an image that continues to inspire wonderment about the spot we call home,” said Ed Stone, project scientist for the Voyager mission, based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, in a statement.

Six of the Solar System’s nine known planets at the time were imaged, including Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. The other three didn’t make it in. Mercury was too close to the sun, Mars had too little sunlight and little Pluto was too dim.

Voyager snapped a series of images with its wide angle and narrow angle cameras. Altogether 60 images from the wide angle camera were compiled into the first “solar system mosaic.”

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as part of a twin probe series with Voyager 2. They successfully conducted up close flyby observations of the gas giant outer planets including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the 1970s and 1980s.

Both probes still operate today as part of the Voyager Interstellar Mission.

“After taking these images in 1990, we began our interstellar mission. We had no idea how long the spacecraft would last,” Stone said.

Hurtling along at a distance of 130 astronomical units from the sun, Voyager 1 is the farthest human-made object from Earth.

Solar System Portrait - 60 Frame Mosaic. The cameras of Voyager 1 on Feb. 14, 1990, pointed back toward the sun and took a series of pictures of the sun and the planets, making the first ever "portrait" of our solar system as seen from the outside.   Missing are Mercury, Mars and Pluto Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech
Solar System Portrait – 60 Frame Mosaic. The cameras of Voyager 1 on Feb. 14, 1990, pointed back toward the sun and took a series of pictures of the sun and the planets, making the first ever “portrait” of our solar system as seen from the outside. Missing are Mercury, Mars and Pluto. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 1 still operates today as the first human made instrument to reach interstellar space and continues to forge new frontiers outwards to the unexplored cosmos where no human or robotic emissary as gone before.

Here’s what Sagan wrote in his “Pale Blue Dot” book:

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Uranus Bland? Nope, It’s A Stormy Planet With Interesting Insides

Sometimes first impressions are poor ones. When the Voyager 2 spacecraft whizzed by Uranus in 1986, the close-up view of the gas giant revealed what appeared to a be a relatively featureless ball. By that point, scientists were used to seeing bright colors and bands on Jupiter and Saturn. Uranus wasn’t quite deemed uninteresting, but the lack of activity was something that was usually remarked upon when describing the planet.

Fast-forward 28 years and we are learning that Uranus is a more complex world than imagined at the time. Two new studies, discussed at an American Astronomical Society meeting today, show that Uranus is a stormy place and also that the images from Voyager 2 had more interesting information than previously believed.

Showing the value of going over old data, University of Arizona astronomer Erich Karkoschka reprocessed old images of Voyager 2 data — including stacking 1,600 pictures on top of each other.

He found elements of Uranus’ atmosphere that reveals the southern hemisphere moves differently than other regions in fellow gas giants. Since only the top 1% of the atmosphere is easily observable from orbit, scientists try to make inferences about the 99% that lie underneath by looking at how the upper atmosphere behaves.

“Some of these features probably are convective clouds caused by updraft and condensation. Some of the brighter features look like clouds that extend over hundreds of kilometers,” he stated in a press release.

Voyager 2. Credit: NASA
Voyager 2. Credit: NASA

“The unusual rotation of high southern latitudes of Uranus is probably due to an unusual feature in the interior of Uranus,” he added. “While the nature of the feature and its interaction with the atmosphere are not yet known, the fact that I found this unusual rotation offers new possibilities to learn about the interior of a giant planet.”

It’s difficult to get more information about the inner atmosphere without sending down a probe, but other methods of getting a bit of information include using radio (which shows magnetic field rotation) or gravitational fields. The university stated that Karkoschka’s work could help improve models of Uranus’ interior.

So that was Uranus three decades ago. What about today? Turns out that storms are popping up on Uranus that are so large that for the first time, amateur astronomers can track them from Earth. A separate study on Uranus shows the planet is “incredibly active”, and what’s more, it took place at an unexpected time.

Summer happened in 2007 when the Sun shone on its equator, which should have produced more heat and stormy weather at the time. (Uranus has no internal heat source, so the Sun is believed to be the primary driver of energy on the planet.) However, a team led by Imke de Pater, chair of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, spotted eight big storms in the northern hemisphere while looking at the planet with the Keck Telescope on Aug. 5 and 6.

Infrared images of Uranus showing storms at 1.6 and 2.2 microns obtained Aug. 6, 2014 by the 10-meter Keck telescope. Credit: Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley) & Keck Observatory images.
Infrared images of Uranus showing storms at 1.6 and 2.2 microns obtained Aug. 6, 2014 by the 10-meter Keck telescope. Credit: Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley) & Keck Observatory images.

Keck’s eye revealed a big, bright storm that represented 30% of light reflected by the planet at a wavelength of 2.2 microns, which provides information about clouds below the tropopause. Amateurs, meanwhile, spotted a storm of a different sort. Between September and October, several observations were reported of a storm at 1.6 microns, deeper in the atmosphere.

“The colors and morphology of this [latter] cloud complex suggests that the storm may be tied to a vortex in the deeper atmosphere similar to two large cloud complexes seen during the equinox,” stated Larry Sromovsky, a planetary scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

What is causing the storms now is still unknown, but the team continues to watch the Uranian weather to see what will happen next. Results from both studies were presented at the Division for Planetary Sciences meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Tucson, Arizona today. Plans for publication and whether the research was peer-reviewed were not disclosed in press releases concerning the findings.

Bumper Car Moonlets Crash and Crumble in Saturn’s F Ring

Nothing stands still. Everything evolves. So why shouldn’t Saturn’s kookie, clumpy F ring put on a new face from time to time? 

A recent NASA-funded study compared the F ring’s appearance in six years of observations by the Cassini mission to its appearance during the Saturn flybys of NASA’s Voyager mission, 30 years earlier.

Example of a kink in part of Saturn's F ring. While the ring is held together by the shephard moons Prometheus and Pandora, which orbit just inside and  outside the ring, embedded moonlets are believed responsible for the kinks and clumps. Credit: NASA
A kink in part of Saturn’s F ring. While the ring is held together by the shepherd moons Prometheus and Pandora, which orbit just inside and outside the ring, embedded moonlets are believed responsible for the kinks and clumps. The rings is several hundred kilometers wide. Credit: NASA

While the F ring has always displayed clumps of icy matter, the study team found that the number of bright clumps has nose-dived since the Voyager space probes saw them routinely during their brief flybys 30 years ago. Cassini spied only two of the features during a six-year period.

Scientists have long suspected that moonlets up to 3 miles (5 km) wide hiding in the F ring are responsible for its uneven texture. Kinks and knots appear and disappear within months compared to the years of observation needed changes in many of the other rings.

Saturn's F ring is extremely narrow compared to the historic A, B and C rings. It measure just a few hundred kilometers across. Credit: NASA/Cassini
Saturn’s F ring is extremely narrow compared to the historic A, B and C rings. It measures just a few hundred kilometers across. Credit: NASA/Cassini

“Saturn’s F ring looks fundamentally different from the time of Voyager to the Cassini era,” said Robert French of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who led the study along with SETI Principal Investigator Mark Showalter. “It makes for an irresistible mystery for us to investigate.”

A 2007 artist impression of the aggregates of icy particles that form the 'solid' portions of Saturn's rings. These elongated clumps are continually forming and dispersing. The largest particles are a few metres across.They clump together to form elongated, curved aggregates, continually forming and dispersing. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Colorado
A 2007 artist impression of small boulder-like chunks of ice that comprise Saturn’s rings. The largest are about 10-12 feet across.They clump together to form elongated, curved aggregates, continually forming and dispersing. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Colorado

Because the moonlets lie close to the ring and cross through it every orbit, the research team hypothesizes that the clumps are created when they crash into and pulverize smaller ring particles during each pass. They suspect that the decline in the number of exceptionally bright kinks and the clumps echoes a decline in the number of moonlets available to do the job.

So what happened between Voyager and Cassini? Blame it on Prometheus. The F ring circles Saturn at a delicate point called the Roche Limit. Any moons orbiting closer than the limit would be torn apart by Saturn’s gravitational force.

A possible culprit! Prometheus measures 74 miles (119 km) across and orbits the inner edge of Saturn's F ring. Credit: NASA
The culprit? Prometheus measures 74 miles (119 km) across and orbits the inner edge of Saturn’s F ring. Credit: NASA

“Material at this distance from Saturn can’t decide whether it wants to remain as a ring or coalesce to form a moon,” said French.  “Prometheus orbits just inside the F ring, and adds to the pandemonium by stirring up the ring particles, sometimes leading to the creation of moonlets, and sometimes leading to their destruction.”

Every 17 years the orbit of Prometheus aligns with the orbit of the F ring in a way that enhances its gravitational influence. The researchers think the alignment spurs the creation of lots of extra moonlets which then go crashing into the ring, creating bright clumps of material as they smash themselves to bits against other ring material.

Sounds like a terrifying version of carnival bumper cars. In this scenario, the number of moonlets would gradually drop off until another favorable Prometheus alignment.

The Voyagers encounters with Saturn occurred a few years after the 1975 alignment between Prometheus and the F ring, and Cassini was present for the 2009 alignment. Assuming Prometheus has been “working” to build new moons since 2009, we should see the F ring light up once again with bright clumps in the next couple years.

Cassini will be watching.

Observing Neptune: A Guide to the 2014 Opposition Season

Never seen Neptune? Now is a good time to try, as the outermost ice giant world reaches opposition this weekend at 14:00 Universal Time (UT) or 10:00 AM EDT on Friday, August 29th. This means that the distant world lies “opposite” to the Sun as seen from our Earthly perspective and rises to the east as the Sun sets to the west, riding high in the sky across the local meridian near midnight.

2014 finds Neptune shining at magnitude +7.6 in the constellation of Aquarius. Unfortunately, the planet is too faint to be seen with the naked eye, but can be sighted using a good pair of binoculars if know exactly where to look for it. Though the telescope, Neptune exhibits a tiny blue-gray disk 2.4” across — 750 “Neptunes” would fit across the apparent diameter of the Full Moon — that’s barely discernible. Don’t be afraid to crank up the magnification in your quest. We’ve found Neptune on years previous by patently examining suspect stars one by one, looking for the one in the field that stubbornly refuses to focus to a star-like point. Make sure your optics are well collimated to attempt this trick. Neptune will exhibit a tiny fuzzy disk, much like a second-rate planetary nebula. In fact, this is where “planetaries” get their moniker, as the pesky deep sky objects resembled planets in those telescopes of yore…

Looking eastward
The position of Neptune, looking eastward on the night of opposition around an hour after sunset. Created using Stellarium.

The 1846 discovery of Neptune stood as a vindication of the (then) new-fangled theory of Newtonian gravitational dynamics. Uranus was discovered just decades before by Sir William Hershel in 1781, and it stubbornly refused to follow predictions concerning its position. French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier correctly assumed that an unseen body was tugging on Uranus, predicted the position of the suspect object in the sky, and the race was on. On the night of September 24th, Heinrich Louis d’Arrest and Johann Gottfried Galle observing from the Berlin observatory became the first humans to gaze upon the new world referring to it as such. Did you know: Galileo actually sketched Neptune near Jupiter in 1612? And those early 18th century astronomers got a lucky break… had Neptune happened to have been opposite to Uranus in its orbit, it might’ve eluded discovery for decades to come!

It’s also sobering to think that Neptune has only recently completed a single orbit of the Sun in 2011 since its discovery. Opposition of Neptune occurs once every 368 days, meaning that opposition is slowly moving forward by about three days a year on our Gregorian calendar and will soon start occurring in northern hemisphere Fall.

September 15th
Neptune and a one degree field (green) circle. Note that it passes the bright naked eye star Sigma Aquarii on September 15th. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Now for the “wow factor” of what you’re actually seeing. Though tiny, Neptune is actually 24,622 kilometres in radius, and is 58 times as big as the Earth in volume and over 17 times as massive. Neptune is 29 A.U.s or 4.3 billion kilometres from Earth at opposition, meaning the light we see took almost four hours to transit from Neptune to your backyard.

Neptune is currently south of the equator, and won’t be north of it again until 2027.

Next month, keep an eye on Neptune as it passes less than half a degree north of the +4.8 magnitude star Sigma Aquarii through mid-September, making a great guide to find the planet…

Aug 29
The orbit of Triton on the evening of August 29th, superimposed on a one arc minute field of view. Created using Starry Night Software.

Still not enough of a challenge? Try tracking down Neptune’s large moon, Triton. Orbiting the planet in a retrograde path once every 5.9 days, Triton is within reach of a large backyard scope at magnitude +14. Triton never strays more than 15” from the disk of Neptune, but opposition is a great time to cross this curious moon off of your observing life list. Neptune has 14 moons at last count.

And speaking of Triton, NASA recently released a new map of the moon. We’ve only gotten one good look at Triton, Neptune, and its retinue of moons back in 1989 when Voyager 2 conducted the only flyby of the planet to date.  Will Pluto turn out to be Triton’s twin when New Horizons completes its historic flyby next summer?

The Moon also passes 4.3 degrees north of Neptune on September 8th on its way to “Supermoon 3 of 3” for 2014 on the night of September 8th/9th. Fun fact: a cycle of occultations of Neptune by the Moon commences on June 2016.

When will we explore Neptune once more? Will a dedicated “Neptune orbiter” ever make its way to the planet in our lifetimes? All fun things to ponder as you check out the first planet discovered using scientific reasoning this weekend.

Pluto Spacecraft Planning? New Map Of Neptune’s Icy Triton Could Prepare For 2015 Encounter

Talk about recycling! Twenty-five years after Voyager 2 zinged past Neptune’s moon Triton, scientists have put together a new map of the icy moon’s surface using the old data. The information has special relevance right now because the New Horizons spacecraft is approaching Pluto fast, getting to the dwarf planet in less than a year. And it’s quite possible that Pluto and Triton will look similar.

Triton has an exciting history. Scientists believed it used to be a lone wanderer until Neptune captured it, causing tidal heating that in turn created fractures, volcanoes and other features on the surface. While Triton and Pluto aren’t twins — this certainly didn’t happen to Pluto — Pluto also has frozen volatiles on its surface such as carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen.

What you see in the map is a slightly enhanced version of Triton’s natural colors, bearing in mind that Voyager’s sensors are a little different from the human eye. Voyager 2 only did a brief flyby, so only about half the planet has been imaged. Nonetheless, the encounter was an exciting time for Paul Schenk, a planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. He led the creation of the new Triton map, and wrote about the experience of Voyager 2 in a blog post.

“Triton is a near twin of Pluto,” wrote Schenk. “Triton and Pluto are both slightly smaller than Earth’s Moon, have very thin nitrogen atmospheres, frozen ices on the surface (carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen), and similar bulk composition (a mixture of ices, including water ice, and rock.  Triton however was captured by Neptune long time ago and has been wracked by intense heating ever since.  This has remade its surface into a tortured landscape of overturned layers, volcanism, and erupting geysers.”

He also added speculation about what will be seen at Pluto. Will it be a dead planet, or will geology still be affecting its surface? How close will Triton be to Pluto, particularly regarding its volcanoes? Only a year until we know for sure.

Sources: NASA, Lunar and Planetary Institute, Paul Schenk

Voyager 1 Hears Sun Echoes Far Away, In Interstellar Space

Wow! Even from interstellar space, the plucky Voyager 1 can still listen in to activities from our Sun. Whenever the Sun has a large amount of activity, the waves of energy it sends out bashes into the charged gas particles or plasma surrounding the NASA spacecraft, which has been sailing away from Earth since 1977.

There have been three events so far from our Sun (which is in solar maximum), with each one confirming scientists’ findings that interstellar space is where the spacecraft is, NASA said.

“Normally, interstellar space is like a quiet lake,” stated Voyager project scientist Ed Stone of the California Institute of Technology. “But when our sun has a burst, it sends a shock wave outward that reaches Voyager about a year later. The wave causes the plasma surrounding the spacecraft to sing.”

“The tsunami wave rings the plasma like a bell,” added Stone. “While the plasma wave instrument lets us measure the frequency of this ringing, the cosmic ray instrument reveals what struck the bell — the shock wave from the Sun.”

The discovery of this wave front confirms the previous assertion that Voyager 1 is indeed in interstellar space, NASA added. Winds from the sun push against the plasma at the edge of interstellar space, making it denser (40 times denser than what was measured before Voyager reached the milestone in 2012, in fact.)

NASA’s announcement in 2013 that Voyager 1 is in interstellar space was accompanied by intense discussion about whether it is in or out of the Solar System (it still hasn’t reached the shell of the Oort Cloud that hosts comets, a milestone that won’t be possible for 300 years). Prior to the announcement, several scientific papers had also weighed in on Voyager 1’s status, with some saying it was interstellar space and some not.

Source: NASA

Stunning Amateur Timelapse of Jupiter ‘Re-enacts’ Voyager Flyby

Back in the 1970’s when NASA launched the two Voyager spacecraft to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, I remember being mesmerized by a movie created from Voyager 1 images of the movement of the clouds in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Voyager 1 began taking pictures of Jupiter as it approached the planet in January 1979 and completed its Jupiter encounter in early April. During that time it took almost 19,000 pictures and many other scientific measurements to create the short movie, which you can see below, showing the intricate movement of the bright band of clouds for the first time.

Now, 35 years later a group of seven Swedish amateur astronomers achieved their goal of replicating the Voyager 1 footage, not with another flyby but with images taken with their own ground-based telescopes.

“We started this joint project back in December of 2013 to redo the NASA Voyager 1 flyby of Jupiter,” amatuer astronomer Göran Strand told Universe Today. “During 90 days we captured 560 still images of Jupiter and turned them into 90 complete maps that covered the whole of Jupiter’s surface.”

Their newly released film, above details the work they did and the hurdles they overcame (including incredibly bad weather in Sweden this winter) to make their dream a reality. They called their project “Voyager 3.”

Animated gif of the 'Voyager 3' team re-enactment of the Voyager 1 flyby. Credit: Voyager 3 team, via Kristoffer Åberg.
Animated gif of the ‘Voyager 3’ team re-enactment of the Voyager 1 flyby. Credit: Voyager 3 team, via Kristoffer Åberg.
It is really an astonishing project and those of you who do image processing will appreciate the info in the video about the tools they used and how they did their processing to create this video.

The seven Swedish astronomers who participated in the Voyager 3 project are (from left to right in the photo below) Daniel Sundström, Torbjörn Holmqvist, Peter Rosén (the project initiator), Göran Strand, Johan Warell and his daughter Noomi, Martin Högberg and Roger Utas.

The Swedish team of amateur astronomers who compiled the 'Voyager 3' project. Image courtesy Peter Rosén.
The Swedish team of amateur astronomers who compiled the ‘Voyager 3’ project. Image courtesy Peter Rosén.

Congrats to the team of Voyager 3!

You can read more about the Voyagers visits to Jupiter here from NASA.

Voyager3Movie from Peter Rosén on Vimeo.

Video: Carolyn Porco Discusses Her Life at Saturn

Space historian Andrew Chaikin sat down with planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, and she discusses how her career has ended up focusing on the Saturn system. I love how Porco relates how even she has been “blown away” by some of the imagery sent back by the missions — just like the rest of us! — saying she’s had to call members of her team several times to verify she wasn’t looking at computer simulations vs. real images.

Enjoy this candid interview of one of the leading planetary scientists of our day.