Jupiter's Red Spot chews up and spits out a storm

By Phil Plait | July 17, 2008 10:15 am

Hubble took this sequence of amazing pictures, showing the Great Red Spot — a storm far larger than our entire planet — chewing up and spitting out a smaller, though still ginormous, storm.

Hubble shot of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot eating a smaller storm

In the first panel you can see the smaller storm on the left (this is the same storm we saw in May, when Jupiter suddenly got acne). In the middle panel, taken about six weeks later, it just contacts the Spot. Over the next few days it swept around and below the Spot, and got tossed out the other side, seen in the last panel. Storms on Jupiter do this all the time; sometimes the smaller ones survive and sometimes they merge into the bigger storms. I can’t imagine what this might look like from a distance of, say, 1000 km above the cloud tops. Holy cow.

Close up on the Great Red Spot

During this whole encounter, the storm known as Oval BA — no relation to me — can be seen below the GRS. The Hubble pictures are pretty close to true color, so this represents more or less what you’d see if you were there. I’m surprised to see that BA has faded some in the middle. It used to be white, then turned red, and now it looks like its undergoing yet another change. Red coloring in storms is usually a sign that organic material from deep in Jupiter’s atmosphere is being dredged up, or that UV light from the Sun is affecting the molecules in the storm. A fading of BA may mean the storm has dropped in altitude, or that it’s weakening.

As you can see, Jupiter is a really dynamic planet. We’re only seeing snapshots here… but you’ve seen weather reports on Earth showing the goofy reporter standing on a sidewalk holding on for dear life while a hurricane blows, right? And yet, despite their strength and chaos, from space terrestrial hurricanes look majestic and slow, almost stationary.

But even the most monstrous Earthly storm would be a blip in this picture of Jupiter, barely visible. And the wind speeds in the GRS and BA are about 620 kph (390 mph), more than twice the speeds in Earth’s most terrible hurricanes.

Yeah, that picture may make Jupiter look stately, but it’s really a ferocious and terrifying place.

Let me add that now is a good time to see for yourself; Jupiter is rising in the east right after sunset, well placed for observing. You can see its moons with binoculars, and with a decent telescope you can see the Great Red Spot yourself (find a nearby star party if you don’t own a ‘scope). Take a look at it and remember: it may look like a fuzzy spot from here, 600 million km away, but its larger than worlds. Including ours.


Comments (26)

  1. I notice that the storm rotating beneath the GRS seems to have stalled in comparision to the picture taken in May, and the ones in June and July. Is that because of the influence of eddies from the GRS? Also, when you talk about organic material, are you talking building blocks of life?

  2. Monsignor Henry Clay

    Last night was a good night. The moon is approaching fullness and Jupiter was right up there with it. I went outside for some air and grabbed my bird watching ‘nocs. It’s amazing that even with such a miniscule magnification as they have I can still identify Jupiter clearly as an orb even though it’s such a long way off. Amazing!


    Jupiter has a ton of methane in it’s atmosphere. As it gets dragged up to the surface it sees the sun for the first time and gets broken down. I believe that’s what Phil’s referring to.

  3. Huh, turns out I imaged that smaller storm on the 26th of June without even realising. I would have tried to follow up on it had I known. Awesome images of Jupiter there! Wish it looked that good through my telescope. 😛

  4. madge

    I am currently looking at a relentlessly grey sky. It rained off my daughter’s end of term picnic concert and any astronomy for tonight. Damn this English drizzle! :(

  5. chaboyax

    i feel your pain madge have done for about 6 weeks

  6. Chip

    This is a simple question but here’s a good place to ask. I’ve noticed in close-up pictures of Jupiter’s red spot, hurricane-like spiral arms can be seen and sometimes it looks like the large outer spiral is going one way but the interior “eye” is spiraling the opposite way. Is this an illusion?

  7. Chip:

    The whole storm is rotating counter-clockwise. (“Anti-clockwise” for those of you on the other side of the Pond.)


  8. I recall that the GRS is a HIGH pressure area. So comparisons to hurricanes, and “dredging up” material is incorrect.

  9. Arthur Maruyama


    An illusion or happenstance of that particular photo. You can go to the Wikipedia entry for the Great Red Spot here:
    and see some animated GIFs showing the overall counterclockwise motion.

    For a more recent animation, the following is Emily Lakdawalla’s info on New Horizon’s flyby of Jupiter:
    which has another animated GIF.

  10. Tod

    OMG, Phil, awesome pix and a great narrative to go with them. What i found interesting are the changes in the weather in the belt just above the GRS, especially between the first photo and the second. It looks like the combined eddies of the GRS and the little storm lashed out to the left and above, playing havoc with the innocent bystanders above.

    Thanks again for writing and posting the things that you find interesting.


  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    And the wind speeds in the GRS and BA are about 620 kph (390 mph),

    Still affected by the Canadian dialect, are we? Nitpick coming up:

    kph is all right for short traffic signs/speedometer use, but it isn’t so scienterrific. km/h or, at worst, kmph, seems more likable.

    Whew! Glad to get that of my chest. So you are saying that we need really powerful planes down there? OK, I will jot it down for future reference.

    [Actually, I’m terribly curious of the future technology that will brave the giant planets to send observations back. Nanoscale mechanics seems a likely bet, as they could survive the turbulence. But what nanobeasts would survive the pressure and heat, and how would they communicate? Even diamonds aren’t guaranteed to be a giant planet’s best friend.]

  12. Does anyone remember the Arthur C. Clarke story about life forms that floated in the layers between the cloud belts of Jupiter? I think it was about sending some kind of probe that made contact?

  13. Pisces

    Hmmm..the sky is clear here so far….maybe i’ll get a look at it tonight while i’m walking Orion : )

  14. Philip

    Michael L,

    “A Meeting with Medusa” it is.

  15. quasidog

    They are great pictures. I have never seen it in so much detail before.

  16. Chip

    THANKS for the information! 😀

  17. madge

    @ Pisces
    Give Orion a big “Woof” from me :)

  18. travissimo

    i mainly only used my terrible telescope to look at the moon. last week i wanted to look at jupiter , it so bright right now i was curious to see what i could see. i was shocked that i could see two dark bands on the face of jupiter and at least three moons. It was great, although jupiter was only the size of a green pea . I got my binoculars a few minutes later and was surprised that i COULD see the moons… later that week we had really dry evening so i invited over some less nerdy friends and showed them all jupiter. Each one of them for the first time… it was great. Although i need to get myself a decent telescope.

  19. Phillip, That’s the one! Thanks! I need to find that.

  20. Jon

    Michael L – also in one of the 2001 books (i think 2010 or 2061, but dont quote me on that)he makes reference to the huge gasbags and their predators living high in Jupiter atmosphere – was just after Floyd became part of the monolith i think (while he was still alive elsewhere)

  21. hdr

    Wow, space is amazing…in another life I would wish to have been an astronaut.

  22. Justin Watts

    Dang if only we had a spot like that to chew up hurricanes!

  23. Aido

    That short story was also co-opted into a chapter in the 2nd or 3rd book of the “2001” series.

    Amazing pictures, hard to believe they are near true colour.

  24. Hunabku

    Silly to compare the GRS to storms on earth – it is a much different phenomena. On the surface it would seem to be related to Coriolis spin effects, which scientist factor into the dynamics of plasma on the surface of the sun.

    This may be the case, but plasma movement on the surface of the sun, sun spots and GRS are likely linked to dynamics deep within the core and perhaps all the way to the center of the objects. At the center i tend to believe a new hypothesis that places a black hole at the center of Jupiter, the Sun and even the earth – spinning at light speed in a viscous environment these black holes power such phenomena such as sun spots, GSR and even volcanic hotspots on our planet.


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