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.

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.

 

 

Will Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Turn into a Wee Red Dot?

Watch out! One day it may just go away. Jupiter’s most celebrated atmospheric beauty mark, the Great Red Spot (GRS), has been shrinking for years.  When I was a kid in the ’60s peering through my Edmund 6-inch reflector, not only was the Spot decidedly red, but it was extremely easy to see. Back then it really did span three Earths. Not anymore. 

Drawing of Jupiter on Nov. 1, 1880 by French artist and astronomer Etienne Trouvelot
Drawing of Jupiter made on Nov. 1, 1880 by French artist and astronomer Etienne Trouvelot showing transiting moon shadows and a much larger Great Red Spot.

In the 1880s the GRS resembled a huge blimp gliding high above white crystalline clouds of ammonia and spanned 40,000 km (25, 000 miles) across. You couldn’t miss it even in those small brass refractors that were the standard amateur observing gear back in the day. Nearly one hundred years later in 1979, the Spot’s north-south extent has remained virtually unchanged, but it’s girth had shrunk to 25,000 km (15,535 miles) or just shy of two Earth diameters. Recent work done by expert astrophotographer Damian Peach using the WINJUPOS program to precisely measure the GRS in high resolution photos over the past 10 years indicates a continued steady shrinkage:

2003 Feb – 18,420km (11,445 miles)
2005 Apr – 18,000km (11,184)
2010 Sep – 17,624km (10,951)
2013 Jan – 16,954km (10,534)
2013 Sep – 15,894km (9,876)
2013 Dec – 15,302km (9,508) = 1.2 Earth diameters


Voyager 1 Jupiter time lapse animation, a reprocessed high-resolution view. Enlarge to full screen to see the GRS rotation best. Credit: NASA / JPL / Bjorn Jonsson / Ian Regan

If these figures stand up to professional scrutiny, it make one wonder how long the spot will continue to be a planetary highlight. It also helps explain why it’s  become rather difficult to see in smaller telescopes in recent years. Yes, it’s been paler than normal and that’s played a big part, but combine pallor with a hundred-plus years of downsizing and it’s no wonder beginning amateur astronomers often struggle to locate the Spot in smaller telescopes . This observing season the Spot has developed a more pronounced red color, but unless you know what to look for, you may miss it entirely unless the local atmospheric seeing is excellent.
Reprocessed view by Bjorn Jonsson of the Great Red Spot taken by Voyager 1 in 1979 reveals an incredible wealth of detail. Credit:
Reprocessed view by Bjorn Jonsson of the Great Red Spot made by Voyager 1 in 1979 reveals an incredible wealth of detail. The Spot is a vast, long-lived. hurricane-like storm located between opposing jet streams in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/

Not only has the Spot been shrinking, its rotation period has been speeding up.  Older references give the period of one rotation at 6 days. John Rogers (British Astronomical Assn.) published a 2012 paper on the evolution of the GRS and discovered that between 2006 to 2012 – the same time as the Spot has been steadily shrinking – its rotation period has spun up to 4 days. As it shrinks, the storm appears to be conserving angular momentum by spinning faster the same way an ice skater spins up when she pulls in her arms.

Drawings by Cassini of what is presumably the Great Red Spot in 1665
Drawings by Cassini of what is presumably the Great Red Spot from 1665 to 1677. South is up. In size and shape it greatly resembles the current Red Spot. (From Amedee Guillemin’s “Le Ciel” 1877)

Rogers also estimated a max wind speed of 300 mph, up from about 250 mph in 2006.  Despite its smaller girth, this Jovian hurricane’s winds pack more punch than ever. Even more fascinating, the Great Red Spot may have even disappeared altogether from 1713 to 1830 before reappearing in 1831 as a long, pale “hollow”. According to Rogers, no observations or sketches of that era mention it. Surely something so prominent wouldn’t be missed. This begs the question of what happened in 1831. Was the “hollow” the genesis of a brand new Red Spot unrelated to the one first seen by astronomer Giovanni Cassini in 1665? Or was it the resurgence of Cassini’s Spot?

4-frame animation spans 24 Jovian days, or about 10 Earth days. The passage of time is accelerated by a factor of 600,000. Credit: NASA
14-frame animation showing the circulation of Jupiter’s atmosphere spans 24 Jovian days, or about 10 Earth days. The passage of time is accelerated by a factor of 600,000. Credit: Voyager 1 / NASA

Clearly, the GRS waxes and wanes but exactly what makes it persist? By all accounts, it should have dissipated after just a few decades in Jupiter’s turbulent environment, but a new model developed by Pedram Hassanzadeh, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, and Philip Marcus, a professor of fluid dynamics at the University of California-Berkeley, may help to explain its longevity.  At least three factors appear to be at play:

* Jupiter has no land masses. Once a large storm forms, it can sustain itself for much longer than a hurricane on Earth, which plays itself out soon after making landfall.

* Eat or be eaten: A large vortex or whirlpool like the GRS can merge with and absorb energy from numerous smaller vortices carried along by the jet streams.

* In the Hassanzadeh and Marcus model, as the storm loses energy, it’s rejuvenated by vertical winds that transport hot and cold gases in and out of the Spot, restoring its energy. Their model also predicts radial or converging winds within the Spot that suck air from neighboring jet streams toward its center. The energy gained sustains the GRS.

Feb. 1 photo of Oval BA, a.k.a. Red Spot Jr. It's the first significant new red s[pt ever observed on Jupiter and located at longitude 332 degrees (Sys. II) The spot about half the width of the more familiar Great Red Spot. Credit: Christopher Go
Feb. 1 photo of Oval BA, a.k.a. Red Spot Jr. It’s the first significant new red spot ever observed on Jupiter and located at longitude 332 degrees (Sys. II) The spot about half the width of the more familiar Great Red Spot. Credit: Christopher Go
If the shrinkage continues, “Great” may soon have to be dropped from the Red Spot’s title. In the meantime, Oval BA (nicknamed Red Spot Jr.) and about half the size of the GRS, waits in the wings. Located along the edge of the South Temperate Belt on the opposite side of the planet from the GRS, Oval BA formed from the merger of three smaller white ovals between 1998 and 2ooo. Will it give the hallowed storm a run for its money? We’ll be watching.


Time-lapse of Jupiter’s atmospheric motions centered on the Great Red Spot photographed by Paolo Porcellana. Each cylindrical/spherical map of the planet is a mosaic of 4-6 pictures made with 11 and 14-inch telescopes.