The Great Red Spot, almost true size

By Phil Plait | September 27, 2010 7:00 am

One of the fun things about astronomical data is that a lot of it is public; if you know where to look you can find it. And a lot of telescopes and space probes produce so much data there’s simply no way professional scientists can look at it all… giving "amateurs" (in the sense that they aren’t professionals, not that they aren’t possessed of vast talent) a chance to create images from these data.

And man oh man, am I glad some folks do just that. Behold!


WOW! That is, of course, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot as seen by the Voyager 1, a spacecraft that flew by Jupiter more than 30 years ago now. The gifted astrophotographer Björn Jónssen reprocessed the images to produce this simply stunning portrait of the centuries-old storm. Remember: when you look at this, you’re seeing a storm that is easily twice as big as the entire Earth!

Björn posts his work on the terrific Unmanned Spaceflight board, a great place to see what folks are doing with space imagery, and where you’ll find other (and some far bigger) versions of this magnificent shot.

For more details on this, Emily Lakdawalla has written it up at the Planetary Society blog. She has lots of details and insight on this, and I strongly urge you to give it a read. I think it’s wonderful that so much of the sky has opened up for everyone.

Image credit: NASA / JPL / Björn Jónsson

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (38)

Links to this Post

  1. De vuelta a la gran mancha roja de Júpiter « [Px] | September 27, 2010
  2. Spot On « Lights in the Dark | September 27, 2010
  1. Scott B

    Is there a place that shows real, visual light video of the of the Jovian clouds moving? Static pictures are pretty, but I’d love to get an idea how the clouds really move. I’ve seen some computer generated motion on TV but I have no idea how realistic the motions shown are.

  2. But, but… it’s not red!

    Seriously: Why isn’t it red in these pictures? Or why is it red in others?

  3. Astrofiend
  4. Jimmy

    Thanks Phil for the all the ways to update my desktop!

  5. Utakata

    I think it has something to do with what’s taking the pictures (many of which are “false colors”). And what is the chemical characteristics of the spot at the time when the picture is taken of it, Deen @ 2.

    I would imagine there are other factors too…but needs someone who is more knowledgable about that to explain it better. :)

  6. GregB

    Magnificent. So hard to grasp that our humble little planet would fit, with room to spare, in the middle of that raging storm.

  7. Orlando

    Why is the Great Red Spot so durable? I’ve searched about it, but I’ve found no answer yet.

    Instead, I’ve found one curious thing: the Great Red Spot is an anticyclone, like the ones here on the Earth. However a major difference from the terrestrial atmosphere is that, in the Jovian atmosphere, anticyclones dominate over cyclones by far.

    I wonder… Is this related in any way with the fact that Jupiter receives less heat from the Sun than the heat from its core?

  8. That is marvelous. His reprocessing really knocks to socks off that National Geographic version he referenced. As someone without astrophotomanipulation experience, I don’t know how to judge the accuracy of his version against that done by NASA, but it does take the prize in the sheer beauty contest.

    And from my vantage point, while the high contrast version looks better when fit to screen size, the closer-to-true-color version really looks nice at the full resolution, fine detail level. I suppose a significant education in image presentation could be gained from these images alone.

  9. DrFlimmer

    WOW! That’s amazing! It almost gives a 3-d impression. Incredible!

  10. Seanc0x0

    The Great Reddish Spot doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    That photo is amazing. The GRS was one of the things that I found really cool as a kid and helped get me interested in space. I hope that it will do the same for my kid.

  11. Loves me some reality-based desktop wallpaper…

  12. Messier Tidy Upper

    By Jove, that photo really hits the Spot! 😉

  13. Wow, simply gorgeous. I sure hope teachers today are taking advantage of amazing images like this to get kids excited about astronomy. I know when I was in grade school we barely touched a science book, and pretty much never talked about astronomy beyond the most basic Earth-goes-round-the-Sun, “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies” stuff. There’s no excuses anymore, these kinds of photos should inspire anybody!!

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    If folks are curious the Great Red Spot (GRS) has its own wiki-page link here :

    Actually it comes as part of the Jupiter’s atmosphere one which figures -it wouldn’t fit in Earth’s atmosphere after all! 😉

  15. Alex

    Orlando: I believe that there are many factors.

    Consider a hurricane forming in the mid-Atlantic. It goes north-west, growing all the time, then suddenly hits North Carolina. It’s now over cooler land, starts shrinking. From then on it’s either over land, or cooler water (the North Atlantic) and it never gets to rotate back to it’s starting point. If you were to remove all of North America, Western Europe and Northern Africa, so you’ve just got water, then a hurricane would have much better chance of being able to loop forever.

    Nighttimes are also a time when an earthly hurricane will tend to shrink. Jupiter’s night is only 10 hours long, so there is much less time for the storm to decay overnight.

    Jupiter is also a heat source in itself, so there is always energy coming up from the lower levels to keep the storm going, so even at night there is more energy available than in it’s earthly version.

    Finally, the sheer size of the storm means that it’s more stable than a smaller one. Imagine if a smallish storm crashes into a slightly larger one. Both storms can be disrupted and cause both of them to fall apart. On the other hand, if the smallish storm crashes into a much larger one, then the larger one will not be seriously affected.

  16. Utakata

    Seanc0x0 @ 10 replied inpart:

    “The Great Reddish Spot doesn’t have the same ring to it. ”

    …well, think of it as a red setter. A dog breed that isn’t exactly “red”.

  17. Messier Tidy Upper

    @7. Orlando Says:

    Why is the Great Red Spot so durable? I’ve searched about it, but I’ve found no answer yet.

    I don’t know but my guess would be inertia and the lack of anything large enough to disrupt it or slow it down.

    Jupiter’s atmosphere is endless, there’s nothing to break the Great Red Spot up or interfere with it and the GRS is just so large that it just keeps going, swallowing lesser storms and/or pushing them aside.

    (NB. Just seen #16 Alex’s reply there now – nicely answered.)

    @ 2. Deen Says:

    But, but… it’s not red! Seriously: Why isn’t it red in these pictures? Or why is it red in others?

    I’ve added a link on the GRS via Wiki which is currently awaiting moderation that notes :

    It is not known exactly what causes the Great Red Spot’s reddish color. Theories supported by laboratory experiments suppose that the color may be caused by complex organic molecules, red phosphorus, or yet another sulfur compound. The GRS varies greatly in hue, from almost brick-red to pale salmon, or even white. The reddest central region is slightly warmer than the surroundings, which is the first evidence that the Spot’s color is affected by environmental factors. … [Snip!] …
    The visibility of GRS is apparently coupled to the appearance of the SEB; when the belt is bright white, the spot tends to be dark, and when it is dark, the spot is usually light.

    Meanwhile, in totally unrelated news (that I can’t resist sharing with y’all here) reading an old New Scientist mag tonight I’ve just learned that Kapteyn’s Star (a nearby red dwarf with the highest proper motion of any star barring only Barnard’s Star) may well have come from Omega Centauri back when that huge globular was a small dwarf galaxy in its own right! (Page 23, 7th November 2009 issue.)

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    For more on Kapteyn’s Star, the 25th nearest of our Sun’s neighbours, see :

    Whilst :

    will give you the basics about Omega Centauri.

    Omega Cen is 15, 800 light years away & Kapteyn’s Star is only thirteen ly distant. It’s come a long way indeed to be so close to us.

  19. If you didn’t know what the picture was, it would look like the striation in sandstone or marble or do I mean granite? Clearly I am not a geologist.

  20. I don’t know if it’s the most romantic science, but astronomy sure produces some of the coolest pictures.

  21. XPT

    Tu quoque, Phil. Displaying the super-saturated, contrast enhanced version of Jupiter’s pics we’re used to since Voyager! :)

  22. Howard

    Outstanding! After a bit of trimming and resizing, it makes an awesome desktop background (especially on my 1920×1200 27″ LCD display!)

  23. Tribeca Mike

    Thundering Jove! That’s really cool.

  24. Flah

    I’ve always loved those images of the gas giants. All of those clouds and whorls make it look like some Renaissance-era painting. I’ve sometimes even mistaken them for artists’ recreations when I first see them.

  25. t-storm

    If it’s rotation is on the order of 9.5 hrs then wouldn’t it’s night be about 4.75 hrs?

  26. Pat

    “Why is the Great Red Spot so durable? ”

    Old god chained in the center of Jupiter. His rage forever churns the planet’s gasses. We know this because of ancient writings found in Martian ruins. OBVIOUSLY. 😀

  27. Syrna

    What chemicals in Jupiter’s atmosphere cause the different hues? The great white storm below the red one seems to have a very different composition, considering its swirls seem to be more compact (or is it just below or above the level of the great storm?) It would be nice to have some article explain what is known about the composition and formation of these huge storm clouds. Jupiter is the most important planet in the solar system, as far as gravity goes, and probably for life on Earth too, as it acts as a shield, attracting coments like Shoemaker-Levy 9, that might have hit the Earth if it wasn’t for our huge protector planet.

  28. coop

    bit of an animation that someone asked for earlier

  29. Caleb Jones

    “My god! It’s full of swirls!”

  30. Molybdenumfist

    An orange whirly thing in space!

  31. Messier Tidy Upper

    @6. GregB Says:

    Magnificent. So hard to grasp that our humble little planet would fit, with room to spare, in the middle of that raging storm.

    But not for long – Jupiter’s gravity would soon drag us down to oblivion in the Jovian core!

    If Earth was placed in the GRS I wonder what would happen? Would we freeze from the reduced sunlight and chill gases swirling around us or would we fry from the kinetic energy of the drop a sour planet plunged downwards?We’d surely quickly be crushed by the pressures too wouldn’t we?

  32. That’s pretty consciousness-changing!

    It reminds me of one of Daniel White’s 3D Mandelbrot set details:

    – Jack

  33. JB of Brisbane

    D’oh!!! Molybdenumfist beat me to it!

  34. Bob Harmount

    Phil, what prevents the gases in the “clouds” of Jupiter from blending together more like Saturn or Neptune? In other words why is there such a sharp demarcation between each gas color?

  35. Dante The Canadian


    From what I’ve seen of the motion of the clouds on Jupiter, there are distinct lines due to the roation of the clouds. there are some that go from east to west and some that move from west to east. They also have different chemical and temperature compositions which keep them from mixing, like oil and water.

    That’d be my guess. As for the Red spot and the other giant storms, they are all located on the border between the two opposite rotating rows of gases. The spin continues endlessly as the gases rotate and cause friction between one another.


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