New Saturn Storm Emerging?

Saturn Storm
Saturn Storm
The tell-tale white notch of a new storm system emerging on Saturn on April 1st. Image credit and copyright: Damian Peach.

Are you following the planets this season? The planetary action is about to heat up, as Jupiter, Saturn and Mars all head towards fine oppositions over the next few months.

Spying the Storms of Saturn

Astrophotographer Damian Peach raised the alarm on Twitter this past week of a possible bright storm emerging of the planet Saturn. The spot was noticeable even with the naked eye and in the raw video Peach captured, a sure sign that the storm was a biggie.

Though outbursts of clusters of white spots on the surface of Saturn aren’t uncommon, it’s rare to see one emerge at such a high latitude. The storm had faded considerably the next observing session Peach performed on April 5th, though observers should remain vigilant.

Saturn Storm 2
A storm subsiding? The followup view a few days later on April 5th. Image credit and copyright: Damian Peach.

It’s sad to think: Cassini and our eyes in the outer solar system are no more… and the situation will probably remain this way for some years to come. Juno also wraps up its mission at Jupiter (pending extension) this year, and New Horizons visits its final destination Ultima Thule (neé 2014 MU69) on New Year’s Day 2019, though it’ll likely continue to chronicle its journey through the outer realms of the solar system, much like the Voyager 1, 2 and Pioneer 10, 11 missions, also bound to orbit the galaxy, mute testaments to human civilization. But even though proposals for Europa Clipper, a nuclear-powered quad-copter for Saturn’s moon Titan, and a Uranus and/or Neptune Orbiter are all on the drawing board, the “gap decade” of outer solar system exploration will indeed come to pass and soon.

saturn storm
Catching a storm on Saturn, Cassini style. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

But dedicated amateur astronomers continue to monitor the outer solar system for changes. This month sees Saturn rising around 1:30 AM local and transiting highest to the south for northern hemisphere observers at 6:00 AM local, just before sunrise. Saturn crosses the constellation Sagittarius in 2018, bottoming out at its most southerly point this year for its 29 year path around the Sun. Saturn currently shines at +0.4 magnitude, extending 40” across (including rings) as it heads towards a fine opposition on June 27th. After opposition, Saturn formally crosses into the dusk sky. The amazing rings are an automatic draw, but last week’s storm admonishes us not to forget to check out the saffron-colored disk of Saturn itself as well. For example, I’ve always wondered: why didn’t we see the hexagon before? It’s right there festooning the northern hemisphere cap, plain as day in modern amateur images… to be sure, we’re in a modern renaissance of planetary astrophotography today, what with image stacking and processing, but surely eagle-eyed observers of yore could’ve easily picked this feature out.

And the view is changing as well, as Saturn’s rings reached a maximum tilt in respect to our line of sight of 27 degrees in 2017, and now head back towards edge-on again in 2025. And be sure to check out Saturn’s retinue of moons, half a dozen of which are easily visible in a telescope at even low power.

Finally, here’s another elemental mystery poised by Saturn related to the current storm, one that Cassini sought to solve in its final days: how fast does Saturn rotate, exactly? The usual rough guesstimate quoted is usually around 10.5 hours, but we’ve yet to pin down this fundamental value with any degree of precession.

One thing’s definitely for sure: we need to go back. In the meantime, we can enjoy the early morning views of the most glorious of the planets in our Solar System.

Incredible Images of Mars from Earth

What did you do during your summer this year? Award-winning astrophotographer Damian Peach spent much of his 2016 summer capturing incredibly clear images of Mars during opposition, when the Red Planet was closest to Earth. Peach has now compiled a wonderful “rotating planet” movie of images taken between June 4th – 18th, 2016, showing amazing detail of the planet.


At its closest point this year, Mars was about 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers) from Earth.

Peach’s astrophotography truly sets “a new standard” as one commenter said, and Peach just won another prize in the “Planets, Comets & Asteroids” division of the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016, awarded at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England last night.

Peach has said this summer held “excellent seeing,” both from his home in the UK and from a photography trip to Barbados. He even captured a fleeting localized dust storm on Mars during mid-June over Mare Erythraeum, one of the prominent dark areas on the planet that were once thought to be seas. In the image below of the dust storm, Peach also pointed out the “linear cloud streak in the southern hemisphere – clearly those Martian flying saucer pilots have been having fun!”

Images of Mars from Earth on Jun 15, 2016. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.
Images of Mars from Earth on Jun 15, 2016. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.

See more of Peach’s excellent astrophotography work at his website , or on Twitter. See a larger version of the lead image here.

Mars is still visible in the night sky, but if you missed seeing this planet at its brightest in 2016, the next time Mars will be at opposition will be in 2018, with close approach on July 31, 2018.

Once Around The Sun With Jupiter

For Jupiterians (Jovians?) a trip around the Sun takes 12 Earth years. If you were born today on the planet or one of its moons, you’d turn one year old in 2027 and reach the ripe old age of 12 in 2111.

In this remarkable montage, astrophotographer Damian Peach divides a year on Jupiter into 12 parts, with images spaced at approximately one-year intervals between February 2003 and April 2015. Like the planet, Peach was on the move; the photos were taken from four different countries with a variety of different telescopes and cameras.

Jupiter is the 5th planet from the Sun and the largest in the solar system with a diameter about 11 times that of Earth. Credit: NASA
Jupiter is the 5th planet from the Sun and the largest in the solar system with a diameter about 11 times that of Earth. Credit: NASA

On the tilted Earth, one year brings a full change of seasons as our planet completes a solar loop in 365 1/4 days. Jupiter’s axial tilt is just 3° or nearly straight up and down, so seasons don’t exist. One part of the Jovian year is much the same as another. Still, as you can plainly see, the solar system’s biggest planet has plenty of weather.

Just look at the Great Red Spot or GRS. Through about 2008, it’s relatively large and pale but suddenly darkens in 2010 at the same time the South Equatorial Cloud Belt (the wide stripe of clouds above the Spot) disappears. If you look closely at the Spot from year to year, you’ll see another big change — it’s shrinking! The GRS has been dwindling for several decades, but it’s amazing how obvious the difference is in only a dozen years.

What we think Jupiter's interior looks like. Deep inside, pressure's so great that hydrogen is compressed into a "metallic" form that conducts electricity. Heat from the core powers winds and helps create clouds in Jupiter's atmosphere. Credit: NASA
What we think Jupiter’s interior looks like. Deep inside, pressure’s so great that hydrogen is compressed into a “metallic” form that conducts electricity. Heat from the core powers winds and helps create clouds in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA

Lots of other smaller changes can be seen, too. On Earth, the primary heat source driving weather is the Sun, but on Jupiter it’s residual heat left over from the collapse of the primordial solar nebula, the vast cloud of dust and gas from which the Sun and planets were formed.

It’s HOT inside Jupiter. A thermometer stuck in its core would register between 23,500° and 63,000° F. That’s too cool for nuclear fusion, the process that powers the Sun, but plenty hot to heat the atmosphere and create magnificent weather. The planet gives off 1.6 times as much energy as it get from the Sun. While hardly a star, it’s no ball of ice either.

Jupiter and Venus still travel in tandem at dusk. Look about an hour after sunset a fist and a half high in the western sky. Venus is the bright one with Jupiter tagging along to the right. Fun to think that the light we see from Jupiter is reflected sunlight, but if we could view it with heat-sensing, infrared eyes, it would glow like an ember.

UK Amateur Recreates the Great Red Spot’s Glory Days

Maybe it’s too soon for a pity party, but the profound changes in the size and prominence of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (GRS) in the past 100 years has me worried. After Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s big bloody eye is one of astronomy’s most iconic sights.

This titanic hurricane-like storm has charmed earthlings since Giovanni Cassini first spotted it in the mid-1600s.  Will our grandchildren turn their telescopes to Jove only to see a pale pink oval like so many others rolling around the planet’s South Tropical Zone?

Maybe.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a cyclone larger than two Earths. (photomontage ©Michael Carroll)
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a cyclone that’s presently about 1.2 times as big as Earth. As recently as 1979, it was twice Earth’s diameter as illustrated here.  Photomontage ©Michael Carroll

An inspired image prompted this sad train of thought. UK astrophotographer Damian Peach came up with an ideal way to depict how the GRS  would look to us now if it we could see it as it was in 1890, 125 years ago. Those were the glory days for the “Eye of Jupiter” as Cassini was fond of calling it. With a diameter of 22,370 miles (36,000 km), the GRS spanned nearly three Earths wide. What a sight it must have been in nearly any telescope.

Peach compared measurements of the Spot in black and white photos taken at Lick Observatory in California in 1890-91 with a photo he took on April 13 this year. He then manipulated his April 13 data using the Lick photos and WINJUPOS (Jupiter feature measuring program) to carefully match the storm to its dimensions and appearance 125 years ago. Voila! Now we have a good idea of what we missed by being born too late.

At left, Photograph of Jupiter's enormous Great Red Spot in 1879 from Agnes Clerk's Book " A History of Astronomy in the 19th Century".
At left,  A crude photograph of Jupiter’s enormous Great Red Spot in 1879 from Agnes Clerk’s Book ” A History of Astronomy in the 19th Century”.

“A century ago, it truly was deserving of its name!” wrote Peach.

Painting by Italian artist Donato Creti showing a telescopic view of Jupiter above a nighttime landscape. The Great Red Spot is clearly visible.
Painting by Italian artist Donato Creti showing a telescopic view of Jupiter in 1711 above a nighttime landscape. The Great Red Spot is clearly visible above center.

The shrinking of the Great Red Spot isn’t breaking news. You read about it here in Universe Today more than year ago. Before that, Jupiter observers had grumbled for years that the once-easy feature had become anemic and not nearly as obvious as once remembered. Astronomers have been following its downsizing since the 1930s.

These two photos, taken by Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley, show the dramatic fading of Jupiter's South Equatorial Belt (SEB) from a year ago. The north belt remains dark and easy to see in a small telescope. The red oval is the Great Red Spot, a hurricane-like weather system some 2 1/2 times the size of the Earth.
Dramatic fading of Jupiter’s South Equatorial Belt (SEB) between 2009 and 2010. The belt has since returned to view. The Red Spot is also seen in both images. Credit: Anthony Wesley

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going away, though if it did — at least temporarily — it wouldn’t be the first time. The Spot vanished in the 1680s only to reappear in 1708. Like clouds and weather fronts that keeps things lively on Earth, Jupiter’s atmosphere constantly cooks up new surprises. The entire South Equatorial Belt, one of Jupiter’s two most prominent “stripes”, has taken a leave of absence at least 17 times since the invention of the telescope, the last in 2010.

Reprocessed view by Bjorn Jonsson of the Great Red Spot taken by Voyager 1 in 1979 reveals an incredible wealth of detail.
The Great Red Spot photographed by Voyager 1 in 1979 and reprocessed by Bjorn Jonsson shows an incredible wealth of detail. Credit: NASA

Perhaps we should turn the question around? How has the Red Spot managed to last this long? Hurricanes on Earth have lifetimes measured in days, while this whirling vortex has been around for hundreds of years. Any number of things should have killed it: loss of energy through radiation of heat to outer space, or energy-sapping turbulence from nearby jet streams. But the Eye persists. So what keeps it alive? Astronomers think the storm might gain energy by devouring smaller vortices, those small white dots and ovals you see in high resolution photos of the planet. Vertical winds that transport hot and cold gases in and out of the Spot may also restore its vigor.

Just in case it disappears unexpectedly, take one last look this observing season. Jupiter’s currently getting lower in the western sky as it approaches Venus for its grand conjunction on June 30. Below are times (Central Daylight or CDT) when it crosses or transits the planet’s central meridian. The GRS will be easiest to see for a 2-hour interval starting an hour before the times shown. It’s located in the planet’s southern hemisphere just south of the prominent South Equatorial Belt. Add an hour for Eastern time; subtract one hour for Mountain and two hours for Pacific. A complete list of transit times can be found HERE.

* June 13 at 8:58 p.m.
* June 18 at 12:16 a.m.
* June 18 at 8:08 p.m.
* June 20 at 9:47 p.m.
* June 22  at 11:26 p.m.
* June 25 at 8:57 p.m.
* June 27 at 10:36 p.m.

 

 

Astrophoto: Hi-Res Stereo Pair of Jupiter and the GRS

Cross your eyes and take a look at this image. If you’re lucky, you will be treated to a wonderfully clear 3-D view of Jupiter and its Great Red Spot, without the aid of a stereoscope. Or — if you haven’t quite mastered the art of viewing stereo pairs — you might end up with eyestrain.

Prolific astrophotographer Damian Peach took these two shots roughly five minutes apart — which makes them a great candidate for creating a stereo pair.

“Inspired by a suggestion from Dr. Brian May,” Peach told Universe Today via email, “this is the first time I’ve had two excellent quality sets of data so close in time with the GRS right in the centre to attempt this. I completely reprocessed the data for both images to keep a soft natural appearance and to closely match the colour between them as possible.”

Peach also said he measured the size of the GRS at 15,500km in width.

Still trying to view this as a 3-D image? Try this suggestion from Oxford University:

Hold a finger a short distance in front of your eyes and stare at it. In the background you should see two copies of the stereo pair, giving four views altogether. Move your finger away from you until you see the middle two of the four images come together. You should now see just three images in the background. Try to direct your attention slowly toward the middle image without moving your eyes, and it should gradually come into focus.

See more of Peach’s great astrophotography at his website.

New Storms on Jupiter Look Like Mickey Mouse

We told you this was going to be a good season to observe Jupiter, and astrophotographers in the northern hemisphere have been making the most of this time of opposition where Jupiter has been riding high in the sky. What we didn’t know was that there was going to be a familiar face staring back at us.

A combination of three storms has been noted throughout this Jupiter observing season for its resemblance to Mickey Mouse’s face (at least in outline), and astrophotographer Damian Peach has captured some great images of these storms, along with the iconic Great Red Spot, its little brother Oval BA and other turbulence. Damian has also put together a stunning movie (below) showing about three hours of rotation of the king of the planets.

Damian explained the Mickey Mouse storms are two anticyclones (high pressure regions) that form the ears while a longer elongated cyclone (low pressure) forms the face.

The abundance of storms on Jupiter are a result of the planet’s dense atmosphere of hydrogen and helium and large gravitational field. Storms on this planet are likely the strongest in the Solar System.

Jupiter reached its most northern point for 2014 at a declination of +23.3 degrees on March 11, but it’s still easily visible since it is the brightest starlike object in the evening sky.

Jupiter's Great Red Spot and the 'Mickey Mouse' storms on February 25, 2014. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and the ‘Mickey Mouse’ storms on February 25, 2014. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.
More images of Jupiter on February 25, 2014, with these showing the Oval BA storm, with the Mickey Mouse storms peeking around the left side. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.
More images of Jupiter on February 25, 2014, with these showing the Oval BA storm, with the Mickey Mouse storms peeking around the left side. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.

As David Dickinson mentioned in his article on observing Jupiter, we’re also in the midst of a plane crossing, as the orbits of the Jovian moons appear edge-on to our line of sight throughout 2014 and into early 2015.

Damian captured this great transit of Europa earlier in February:

Check out more of Damian Peach’s work at his website.

Gorgeous Astrophoto: Montage of Comet ISON

Astrophotographer Damian Peach has wowed us with his images of Comet ISON the past few months. Here’s a montage of some of his best images from September 24 to November 15.

“This may well be my final word on it.” Damian said via email, “but here it is growing in brightness on approach to its best in mid-late November.”

And while it appears there’s a ghost of ISON out there with a blob of dust in the latest views from the Sun-studying satellites, it won’t give us the views we had hoped for. But its been a fun experience the past few months, watching what unfolded. Thanks for bringing us along for the ride with your images, Damian!

Astrophoto: Comet LINEAR Meets a Spiral Galaxy

Just in from the pretty pictures department: Award-winning Astrophotographer Damian Peach from the UK took this gorgeous image this morning of Comet C/2012 V2 LINEAR passing by bright spiral galaxy NGC 2997. While the cosmic duo looks like they are right next to each other, Damian notes that in reality, the comet is 17 light minutes away from Earth while NGC 2997 is 38 million light years away.

The specs: 0.11m F5.6 with STL-11k. LRGB. L: 5x3mins. RGB: 1x2mins.

Check out more of Damian’s fantastic collection of images at his website or Facebook page.

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