Jupiter, spot by spot

By Phil Plait | July 23, 2006 10:24 pm

A while back I wrote that a new storm on Jupiter would pass by the Great Red Spot, and while they weren’t expected to interact very much, it should make for an interesting sight.

Well, I called it right on the money.

The encounter between the two spots was captured by the giant Gemini telescopes in July. The image is in the infrared (in visible light both spots would be red). The astronomers used three filters (ranging from just outside what our eyes can detect in IR to way out in the IR spectrum) just like they would for an optical image. The filters used really bring out the spots, so they are very easy to see. Here’s what the astronomers say about the images:

In this color composite image, white indicates cloud features at relatively high altitudes; blue indicates lower cloud structures; and red represents still deeper cloud features. The two red spots appear more white than red, because their tops hover high above the surrounding clouds.

Given that one of the filters they used sees the "thermal" infrared (meaning it detects warm gas, something like room temperature or so) I suspected at first that the colors represented temperatures. However, it’s not that simple, since at least one filter they used detects hydrogen (that’s blue in the image), and another detects methane (green in that image). So red stuff is warm (deeper in the atmosphere the temperature increases, so red=deep), but blue is hydrogen (which must be more prevalent lower down but not as low as the red stuff) and green is methane. All three colors together make white, so the tops of the clouds must be warm, and have lots of hydrogen and methane. The warmth is interesting, as you might expect cloud tops to be cool; but it’s possible that a warm upwelling of gas in Jupiter is making the smaller spot rise in altitude. That would explain why it’s warm, and has hydrogen and methane, too.

All in all, planetary atmospherics is a tough discipline, and I for one am glad we have so many experts studying it. By analyzing systems like Jupiter, we can understand our own weather better. It’s been 95 – 100+ degrees here every day where I live, so I’d be pretty happy if people understood exactly why. Maybe someday we will.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (16)

  1. Kaptain K

    MOOGALOONIE*!!!!

    *Just a little bit more than merely too much!

  2. Now THIS is why I love astronomy.

  3. Tim G

    Quote from Gemini website:

    The image was obtained in near-infrared light using adaptive optics which corrects, in real-time, for most of the distortions caused by turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere. The result is a view from the ground that rivals images from space.

  4. Don’t ask why it’s hot were you live, go buy an airconditioner, the biggest one you can afford and then start wondering about the “mysterious” blackouts when the power grid can’t keep up.

  5. Are a nice piccy to use as Wall paper perhaps?

  6. Richard Board

    A beautiful image – suitable for framing!

  7. Michelle Rochon

    That’s quite a nice family picture. :)

  8. Interesting. HOW did you predict the second spot passing the Red Spot?

  9. Irishman

    The spot was observed moving toward the big one. Phil predicted they wouldn’t interact much. See the link “I wrote” at the top of the column.

  10. Insight

    Do you all know about the SpaceWeather service? They also send messages about other interesting astronomical phenomena such as about Red Spot Jr. This was in their email notice on July 17th which was the date of nearest approach of the two spots…

    RED JR. UPDATE: The two biggest storms on Jupiter have been converging for months, and this week they’re at closest approach. So far, Red Junior and the Great Red Spot are surviving the encounter with little disruption or weakening of either storm system.

    See the page and images at SpaceWeather.com and go to the July 17, 2006 news using the Archive search (upper right corner of page).

    The July 17 message also included news about the inflatable satellite, Genesis. While you’re there, subscribe to their free email news service – low volume, interesting stuff – solar events, aurora alerts, meteor showers.

  11. Insight

    Do you all know about the SpaceWeather service? They also send messages about other interesting astronomical phenomena such as about Red Spot Jr. This was in their email notice on July 17th which was the date of nearest approach of the two spots…

    RED JR. UPDATE: The two biggest storms on Jupiter have been converging for months, and this week they’re at closest approach. So far, Red Junior and the Great Red Spot are surviving the encounter with little disruption or weakening of either storm system.

    See the page and images at SpaceWeather.com and go to the July 17, 2006 news using the Archive search (upper right corner of page).

    The July 17 message also included news about the inflatable satellite, Genesis. While you’re there, subscribe to their free email news service – low volume, interesting stuff – solar events, aurora alerts, meteor showers. Phil, I suggest you add the SpaceWeather URL to your links page because it’s a good source for real info about events in space that affect our daily lives.

  12. Hey!

    This pic’s up as today’s APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day)

    http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html

  13. icemith

    Without reading too much of what others have written about TGRS (The Great Red Spot), and Red Jr., I’m wondering about the (relative) close proximity effect and realised that they are both vertical ‘bodies’, maybe not unlike waterspouts here on Earth. The fact that two waterspouts can get pretty close and not mix or combine- imagine two spinning wheels, both spinning in the same direction, but actually opposite at the closest point- then the forces that enable a highly concentrated vertical low pressure stream would preclude combination. Thus they could approach quite closely. And remember their edges are still thousands of kilometers apart anyway, as seen in the photos.

    And now a random question. Could the existence of the TGRS, etc, be explained as the result of a long ago, (middle ages event), impact of an asteroid, somewhat large, and relatively hot, passing down into the lower reaches of Jupe’s atmosphere, and is ‘boiling’ away, throwing off gaseous material which is welling up towards the surface, in a spiral fashion? I cannot reconcile a second spot, other than an offshoot in that lower atmosphere. Do waterspouts branch?

    Ivan.

  14. Spaceman Spiff

    BA: “All three colors together make white, so the tops of the clouds must be warm, and have lots of hydrogen and methane.”

    Well, maybe. But as you noted a few lines up, it might not be quite so simple. The point is that we’re seeing cloud tops of the two storms, and clouds – unlike gases- are composed of droplets, whose optical properties differ in detail from the gas phase molecules (for one – their scattering cross section per molecule is orders and orders of magnitude higher due to their larger size). A few more details would appear be in order before such a conclusion could be reached in confidence.

  15. Troy

    Yet another cool picture. I was hoping they’d merge, but at least Red Jr. is still going to be making the rounds. I’ve heard Galileo was able to see the Red spot in his puny telescope, I’ve yet to see it in even a 4-1/2″ reflector, otherwise it would be a good back yard sight.

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