Red Storm Rising

By Phil Plait | May 31, 2006 10:02 pm


Hey, remember the new red spot that’s appeared on Jupiter? Recent observations have shown that it’s slowly approaching its big brother, the Great Red Spot. Christopher Go, an astronomer, has created the website to monitor it. He has a small ‘scope, but he takes phenomenal images. The one above was taken by him, and shows how close the two storms are getting. Red Jr. is just above and to the right of the Big One. Go expects the two spots will pass each other around July.

You may be wondering how a storm can pass another storm like that. When you look at Jupiter, you aren’t seeing the surface. Jupiter may not have a real surface at all! We are seeing the tops of the clouds, and the atmosphere of Jupiter goes down for thousands of kilometers, until the fantastic pressure turns it into a liquid. This transition region is not sharp like it is on Earth (think about the sharp boundary between the air and the surface of the ocean), it’s fuzzy. For hundreds of kilometers vertically it might be hard to tell air from liquid– it’s like a slushy glop. Jupiter’s a very weird place.

What’s weirder is that the atmosphere is banded, striped. Those are different wind patterns, something like the different winds on Earth, like the trade winds and the doldrums. The winds move at different speeds. Overall, Jupiter spins about once every 10 hours, but the storms drift a little compared to that. What this means is that over time, the Red Spot might overtake (or lag behind) another storm. In the picture of Jupiter above, see how the clouds to the left of the Great Red Spot look clean, but to the right they are all roiled up? The clouds on the right were whipped around the Spot, which is moving right-to-left very slowly as seen in this image. Think of running your finger through water: in front of your finger the water is calm, but behind it the water is disturbed. That’s pretty much what’s happening on Jupiter.

So right now, Red Jr. is moving toward Big Brother. Usually, there’s not much mixing between the stripes, but I wonder what will happen when Jr. gets just above the bigger storm? Will it survive? Probably. But it might get mixed up. We’ll see. And with fantastic images like Go’s, we really will see!’

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Science

Comments (20)

  1. Hi Phil!! How’s the world’s most boyish astronomer today? :-)

    Am I crazy, or does Jupiter look really pale in this pic?

  2. Wow. That’s facinating. I can’t wait to see if there is any interaction as they pass.

  3. TheBlackCat

    What happens if Jr. misses and ends up in the turbulent flow behind its big uncle? That might be even more interesting. I suspect it might get torn apart, but how and if that happens might be able to tell us something about Jupiter’s atmosphere (density, flow rate, viscosity, etc).

  4. The awesome thing about the pressure in Jupiter’s lower layers is that it’s high enough to not only form liquid hydrogen, but metallic hydrogen – the pressure is so great the hydrogen ionizes, thereby becoming conductive, which gives Jupiter it’s magnetic field. Liquid, metallic hydrogen… how cool is that?

  5. Tim G

    The electrical conductivity of metallic hydrogen may be the reason why Jupiter’s magnetic field is so great. Within the magnetic field is Jupiter’s equivalent of the Van Allen radiation belts. The radiation on Io, Europa and maybe even Ganymede is too intense to make human exploration practical.

    There has been some speculation that there may be a metastable form of metallic hydrogen (MSMH) that would not immediately revert to ordinary hydrogen upon release of pressure, much like diamond does not immediately revert to the lower energy state of graphite.
    If used as a rocket fuel, the decomposition of metallic hydrogen would yield an exhaust speed of about three times that from the combustion of H2/O2. I don’t know of any sci-fi writers who have used MSMH.

  6. Digital Apprentice

    Not very cool at all, according to Wikipedia. About 3000 K (~5000 degF)

  7. Lucid

    “This transition region is not sharp like it is on Earth (think about the sharp boundary between the air and the surface of the ocean), it’s fuzzy.”

    Wow. I’d never thought about it that way. Of course it wouldn’t be a sharp boundary….now that you made me think about it! Mind boggling! :)

    Thanks for the mind expansion, Phil!

  8. Sharp transition my Heinie! Have you guys ever felt your way around with your front fender on a foggy day?

  9. Chip

    Great pictures – I like that HST close-up lower on the webpage too! I realize the storms are in different bands but considering the turbulence below the cloud tops, is there a chnace that Spot Jr. would be drawn around Big Spot and they could merge?

  10. How old is the Great Red Spot?

  11. Tim G wrote:

    If used as a rocket fuel, the decomposition of metallic hydrogen would yield an exhaust speed of about three times that from the combustion of H2/O2. I don’t know of any sci-fi writers who have used MSMH.

    “Reavers!” Mal screamed as he watched the grotesquely beweaponed ships slide silently out of the small moon’s shadow. His finger jabbed the intercom switch. “Kaylee, you’ve got about thirty seconds to get that metallic hydrogen tank hooked back into the engine.”

    Curses in Mandarin came crackling back along the comlink.

    “Poor girl,” said Simon Tam. “You put her under more pressure than the hydrogen.”

  12. Kevin from NYC

    WOW! I saw Jupiter and Saturn on Saturday.

    Hey Phil….does Red Oval BA stand for Red Oval BAD ASTRONOMER!!??

    they named a spot after you how nice!

  13. Harrison

    Jupiter is upside-down in this photograph, right?

  14. Toren asked:
    How old is the Great Red Spot?

    About 340 years now—though there was a long period in the eighteenth century when it seemed to go AWOL.

  15. idlemind


    I don’t think anyone saw the GRS appear; it could well have been there a while before it was discovered.

  16. I didn’t claim anyone saw it appear, though I did word my reply above pretty badly. Hooke was the first to report it, so it’s “been known of” for about 340 years.

  17. eddie

    Harrison asked: Jupiter is upside-down in this photograph, right?

    As opposed to, umm, what?

  18. John

    How do they determine that Jr. is higher than the GRS?

  19. Kaptain K

    “Jupiter is upside-down in this photograph, right?”

    Well…South is up, if that’s what you mean.

  20. eddie,

    I meant relative to the northern and southern halves of the ecliptic.

    Thanks Kaptian K.


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