How will Jupiter hold up his pants?

By Phil Plait | May 12, 2010 1:07 pm

From Emily at The Planetary Society blog comes word that one of Jupiter’s belts has disappeared… again.

Jupiter_nobelt

This image, by the accomplished amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley, shows what’s up. Usually, the Great Red Spot is accompanied by a dark reddish belt that goes all the way around the planet, like the one in the northern hemisphere you can see in the picture. However, the Southern Equatorial Belt, as it’s called, is gone!

This has happened before, in fact. It’s not clear exactly why this sort of thing occurs, though. The belts (and their lighter-colored cousins, called zones) are weather patterns that stretch around the planet, a bit like the jet stream on Earth. They can be affected by temperature, chemical composition, and other factors. It’s possible that a belt can sink lower in the Jovian atmosphere if it cools slightly. Clouds then pour in on top of it, hiding it from view. It’s still there, just hidden; if the temperature rises it can float back up like nothing ever happened.

Jupiter is a weird place. Remember, we only see the very tops of the clouds. They go all the way down, tens of thousands of kilometers deep, where the pressure gets so great the gas just sorta gradually turns into a liquid. So having a belt sink a little bit and disappearing is perhaps less unlikely with such a freaky planet than it would be on Earth.

But there is a very cool thing about this: you can see it for yourself! It only takes a small telescope to see Jupiter, and with a modest ‘scope the belts are visible. Well, usually visible; not this one so much right now, but you get my drift. If you want to see this for your very own self, you’ll have to get up early: Jupiter doesn’t rise until very early morning. Get up an hour or so before dawn and you should be able to get a good look. It’ll be the very bright starlike object in the East, brighter than anything else in the sky except the Moon, so it’s easy to spot.

But if you prefer your astronomy to be virtual, you can check out other pictures at Wesley’s site, as well as Astro Bob’s blog.

I wonder how long the belt will be gone? It could be months, or it might pop back up sooner. Either way, it’s a good reminder that we still have a lot of stuff to figure out when it comes to the Universe around us.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (44)

Links to this Post

  1. Feed into the Proxy Portal « Unspeakable Evil | May 21, 2010
  1. I guess this means no one was looking, taking pictures, and generating a before-to-after video? :-(

    How long did it take to disappear? What did it look like mid-vanish?

  2. Emery Emery

    I was wondering what it looked like before so I went and found an example.

    Check the two pics out side by side.

    http://www.gearthblog.com/images/images2006/jupiter.jpg

  3. Douglas Troy

    Maybe it’s changing to vertical stripes instead.

    Those are slimming you know …

  4. Nick K.

    From what I was reading it was there before Jupiter went behind the sun where we could no longer observe it, then it just recently came back around where we can point our telescopes at it again, bam! no more belt. so it was unfortunately something that occurred during a ground based unobservable time. It would be cool if any of our probes picked it up however.

  5. CR

    In the spirit of this post’s title & naked reference…

    How will jupiter hold up his pants? Maybe he’s dropping them on purpose! So, would this be a new ‘moon’ of Jupiter?

    (Sorry ’bout that, everyone…)

  6. Jacob

    Apparently Jupiter was too close to the sun (from our perspective) to observe between late 2009 and earlier in April. By the time it had become visible again, the SEB was gone.

    It was the perfect heist.

  7. jcm

    “They go all the way down, tens of thousands of kilometers deep, where the pressure gets so great the gas just sorta gradually turns into a liquid.”

    I hear it is metallic hydrogen.

  8. Chemical Engineer

    “I guess this means no one was looking, taking pictures, and generating a before-to-after video? :-(
    How long did it take to disappear? What did it look like mid-vanish?”

    It happened during a superior conjunction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Positional_astronomy.png), so we don’t know what it looked like. If it were Saturn, Cassini would tell us.

  9. Sticks

    I am waiting for someone to blame this on our Global Warming . . .
    ;-)

  10. Joey Joe Joe

    @5

    I’m sure if something like this happened to our atmosphere, that’s exactly what would happen.

  11. @Ken B #1: The SEB disappeared during the run up to superior conjunction on February 28. You can see images from before and during this change at http://alpo-j.asahikawa-med.ac.jp/Latest/Jupiter2009Apparition.htm from the ALPO-Japan.

  12. Maybe the belt is now becoming a pair of suspenders? The Larry King of Planets!

  13. Danno

    Hear any reports of obelisks loitering nearby?

  14. Something wonderful is happening.

  15. John Paradox

    Considering the original mythology of Jupiter/Zeus, there was apparently a lot of ‘pants dropping’ back in the day…..

    J/P=?

  16. Crux Australis

    I want a new telescope!!

  17. pheldespat

    How long before the doomsayers take this event as a sign of the end of times?

  18. At least the Great Red Spot hasn’t ‘buckled under’! (sorry).

    It’s an awesome planet, apparently with a similar composition to the Sun – - the colours of the banding are due to very small amounts of ammonia, water vapour, methane etc.

    I’ve had my 8″ reflector for 2 years, and I’ve still to obtain a really decent view of Jupiter unfortunately. Last summer/autumn it was only 10 degrees or so above the southern horizon and the seeing at that position was disappointing. Did manage to see the bands/GRS and of course the Galilean satellites though!

  19. Awesome! We’re studying the planets in 6th grade science right now (last unit of the year). Can’t wait to show the kids this tomorrow!

  20. Brian Too

    2012 isn’t that far away and this is the first sign I predicted (here, for the first time, retroactively).

    You know, of the, uh, ‘pockyclipse.

  21. Jon

    @Ken B (1):

    “What did it look like mid-vanish?”

    From what I’ve read, Jupiter was hiding behind the sun mid-vanish.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18889-jupiter-loses-a-stripe.html

    “The band was present at the end of 2009, right before Jupiter moved too close to the sun in the sky to be observed from Earth. When the planet emerged from the sun’s glare again in early April, its south equatorial belt was nowhere to be seen.”

  22. Thanks for this. Fascinating!

  23. This will make the Great Red Spot easier to see, so there’s that going for it…

  24. GK4

    Good God! The color: it’s fading!

  25. Nick

    My first reaction was that this was a reference to a Hugo-nominated novel by Iain M Banks. _The Algebraist_ is a novel about a race of highly advanced and quite eccentric gas giant inhabitants and called Dwellers who have been around for billions of years and consider the rest of the universe to be annoying mayflies, when they take notice of us at all.

    The section in question :

    “Dweller Formal Wars are like duels fought on a huge scale”, Fassin told her. The colonel turned fractionally towards him. “Normally about some aesthetic dispute. They’re often the final stage of a planet-planning dispute.”

    “Planet-planning?”

    “A common one is where there’s some dispute concerning the number of belts and zones a planet ought to have. Then, the Odds and the Evens are the two sides, usually.”

    ” Planet-planning?” the colonel repeated, as though she hadn’t picked up right the first time. “I did not think gas-giants were, well, planned.”

    ” The Dwellers claim they can alter the number of bands a planet has, over a sufficiently great amount of time. They’ve never been reliably observed doing this but that doesn’t stop them claiming to be able to do it. Anyway, it’s not the doing of the thing that matters, it’s the principle. What sort of world do we want to live in? That’s the question.”

    ” Even or Odd?”

    “Exactly. A Formal War is just the working-out.”

    The wikipedia page has spoilers, so go to http://trashotron.com/agony/reviews/2004/banks-the_algebraist.htm for a review.

  26. Paul from VA

    Meanwhile, Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general of Virginia, has announced he is charging Jupiter with public indecency.

  27. For those of you think that Anthony Wesley’s images are good. They will be getting better.
    1) Jupiter is only 36 arcseconds in diameter right now. At opposition in September it will be about 50 arceseconds. That means his images will be about 40% larger than the image shown above
    2) The camera he has he only has had it for about 1 month or two and is still tweaking things to get the best images out of it
    3) He is waiting on a custom 16″ mirror to replace his current 14″ mirror. Bigger mirror = better detail.

    I’m still waiting for Jupiter to rise above the trees here….and waiting for some clear steady nights :P

  28. >>Good God! The color: it’s fading!>>

    It’s shrinking! It’s shrinking!!!

  29. Pi-needles

    It’s possible that a belt can sink lower in the Jovian atmosphere if it cools slightly. Clouds then pour in on top of it, hiding it from view.

    So its not Jove’s *pants* that are falling down but his belt instead! Where are the pants on Jupiter? ;-)

    @5. CR Says:

    How will Jupiter hold up his pants? Maybe he’s dropping them on purpose! So, would this be a new ‘moon’ of Jupiter? (Sorry ’bout that, everyone…)

    Don’t be – I laughed. :-)

    @7. jcm Says:

    “They go all the way down, tens of thousands of kilometers deep, where the pressure gets so great the gas just sorta gradually turns into a liquid.”

    I hear it is metallic hydrogen.

    It is but that’s *much* lower down. Jupiter (like the Sun) is mostly composed of hydrogen and helium (plus a few slight impurities which provide the colour) in different phase states depending on the altitude or depth and consequent pressure level that the H & He is at. Just above the core which is at an extremely high temperature and pressure the H / He is solid and in metallic hydrogen form then it becomes liquid further up and eventually gas which make up the cloudy surface we see.

    Arthur C. Clarke in his Space Odyssey books – notably 2010 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010:_Odyssey_Two ) – had a good imaginative voyage through these layers and speculated about the core of Jupiter being a solid diamond – which, alas, I think has been ruled out since based on Jupiter’s chemical composition although that idea still remains in play for the outer gas giants, eg. Neptune.

  30. After moving to a new city a few years ago, I have nearly neglected observing the night sky. I think the only time that I set up a scope since then, was for Holmes a couple of years ago???(I neglected my journal). If the skies clear this morning, I will remedy this!

    Thanks doc for helping me to put things in perspective-inverts are cool, but too are other things.

  31. Oli

    NASA is doing this! They’re making Jupiter into a star, just like in 2010: Odyssey two! IT all makes sense! 2010 is NOW, so they’re making it into a star now! We must stop these evil people!

    /sarcasm

  32. andy

    I think something similar was happening during the Pioneer 10 encounter, which is why the images from that mission look rather odd to those of us used to seeing the images from missions that visited while the Southern Equatorial Belt was visible.

  33. Really, there is no up or down in space, is there? Maybe the upper belt is holding the pants in place.

  34. I’m not up on my current space probes, but is Galileo dead? Would it not have seen these changes?

    Come to think of it, I haven’t seen many pictures from Galileo lately. I need to be more attention.

  35. lookaround

    Heh, heh. A Polish news web portal has an article about this… only the title says that one of Jupiter’s RINGS is missing. In the article itself, they go on to say that “the planet’s characteristic appearance is due to the presence of rings made of dust and rock debris” and that the latest photos show the disappearance of a “ring” called the South Equatorial Band. The photos they put in the article are correct and clearly show that it’s an atmospheric belt that’s missing, not some ring.

    So much confusion! I had a good laugh at this article.

  36. CR (#5)

    Maybe he’s dropping them on purpose! So, would this be a new ‘moon’ of Jupiter?

    Can you imagine the advertising budget that “Twilight” must have in order to pull that one off? I hear they have another stunt planned for July 11th.

  37. drksky (#34):

    I’m not up on my current space probes, but is Galileo dead?

    You’re definitely “not current” here. Galileo was “crashed” (if you can call it that) into Jupiter to end its mission in September 2003.

    http://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/solarsystem/galileo_final.html

    The Galileo spacecraft’s 14-year odyssey came to an end on Sunday, Sept. 21, when the spacecraft passed into Jupiter’s shadow then disintegrated in the planet’s dense atmosphere at 11:57 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. The Deep Space Network tracking station in Goldstone, Calif., received the last signal at 12:43:14 PDT

  38. Chris A.

    @Pi-needles (#29):

    “It is (metallic hydrogen) but that’s *much* lower down.”

    Umm, only 1000 km down, from what I understand. Compared to Jupiter’s radius of 71,500 km, I don’t know that I would characterize that (1.4% of the way to the center) as “much lower.”

    By volume, Jupiter is mostly liquid (metallic hydrogen), not gas. (See: http://tinyurl.com/2dj6vfq, especially figure 3.5.)

  39. ggremlin

    On Jupiter, would the Greenhouse Effect, be the Redhouse Effect?

  40. Chris Winter

    Paul from VA (#26) wins the thread.

  41. Denver7M

    This is so cool! In about a month I am going to be at the Rocky Mountain Star Stare and hoping like crazy that the southern belt will be in the process of regenerating itself by then. That would be an awesome thing to observe. Truth is, I didn’t even know this could happen. Thanks for the info Phil, although I wish we knew more so that the reason this happens could be explained. I’m sure the reality is much more fascinating than all the speculation. I think it’s time we invested in an advanced probe that could tool around Jupiter making advanced observations like we have in Cassini. A Gallileo II, if you will. I’ll contribute ten bucks, what do you folks say?

  42. OldenOne

    Where In Space Is Carmen Sandiego?

  43. Ohio Doug

    Why dont we have probes stationed on the surface of one of the moons of these gas giants.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »