Astronomers thankful for return of Jupiter's belt

By Phil Plait | November 25, 2010 7:00 am

NASA just released a new image of Jupiter that confirms what amateur astronomers discovered a few days ago: Jupiter’s Southern Equatorial Belt is coming back!


[Click to enzeusenate.]

This picture is a combination of three infrared images using the monster Gemini North Telescope. Infrared light at 1.69 microns (roughly twice the wavelength our eyes can see) is colored yellow, and shows the cloudtops, much like optical light images show. Far-infrared at 4.68 microns (wavelengths roughly 5-6 times what our eyes can see) is colored red, and comes from two altitudes: high up in the clouds where convected heat from the interior comes up, as well as from areas with little cloud cover allowing us to see the ambient heat from deeper in the atmosphere. Blue represents 2.12 microns (~2.5x what our eyes perceive) and comes from particles suspended high above the cloud deck.

jupiter_belt_reappearThe Southern Equatorial Belt is usually dark, and is somewhat lower down in Jupiter’s atmosphere than other clouds. Every now and again the wind patterns change, and white ammonia ice forms above the belt, hiding it. That pattern stays around for a while, then eventually breaks up. As that happens, we get patches of clearer air, allowing us to see down into the atmosphere farther, where the dark belt still lies.

That’s what’s happening here. The NASA image looks very much like those taken by amateur astronomers recently (shown here on the right)*. You can see the three dark comma-shaped features in the amateur image, which astronomers suspected were clear patches through the white ammonia ice, letting us peek at the lower-altitude belt below them. In the infrared those patches are bright, just as you’d expect from the warmer belt air, supporting the idea that the ammonia fog is clearing and the belt is ready to come back into view.

All in all, what astronomers are hoping is that we’ve caught the re-emergence of the belt as it’s happening: something never seen before with modern high-tech instrumentation.

And it’s very important to note how this was found: by dedicated amateur astronomers who watch Jupiter like hawks with every chance they get. Christopher Go, who first saw a bright spot on Jupiter signifying the belt’s return, was watching for it specifically: he knew from the last time the belt disappeared what to look for. And he should know what Jupiter looks like, since he monitors it constantly, and in fact actually caught the flash of light from an asteroid impact on Jupiter in June 2010.

Astronomy is an awesome science: it’s one of the few where dedicated "hobbyists" can contribute, and do so in a critical and timely way. It’s a big sky, with a lot to observe. And if I may say so, I’m thankful there are so many keeping an eye on it.

* Though you have to be careful; the two images show different things in different colors, so a cloud layer that is dark in one image may be bright in another.

Related posts:

Jupiter hitching up its belt?
BREAKING: Another Jupiter impact!
FOLLOWUP: Jupiter impact video and a color picture

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (32)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    By Jove that’s good news! 😉

    The naughty gas clouds or whatever it was that hid it should come in for good belting! 😉

    BTW. That’s a great cut-away / composite image of Jupiter there but also a kinda freaky, eerie one. It’s like a monolith or something has gone particularly badass on Jove’s globe!

  2. RA

    Just a note, you’ve spelled his name ‘Chrostopher Go’ in your tags.

  3. Theodorus

    Please, doe not forget:

    The ultra big meteorite is comming to us.
    There will be a lots of fire.

  4. Warren

    Nice article, but I’m stumped by the image caption: “Click to enzeusenate.” Is that a typo, a made up word, or some language I’m not familiar with? I can see how Zeus might be connected with Jupiter, but I can’t find “enzeusenate” in any dictionary, and google translate is no help either. Please reveal where this curious word comes from. Thanks.

  5. YOU did it! YOU burned jellied mineral oil candles to enstinkify your home. YOU carried HDPE shopping bags. YOU walked on Kraton thermoplastic elastomer shoes (every polymer molecule with its satanic central dimethylsilicon of sin). YOU ate turducken on Thanksgiving.

    Jupiter is now bent over double with mesoatmospheric insufflation. Untold billions of fragile and endangered species are dying. Jupiter will wildly pirouette in its orbit, smashing through the asteroid belt, thrusting the Earth into the sun, and preventing the James Webb Telescope from awarding NASA management performance bonuses for a job well delayed.

    The Enviro-whiner lock box can save Jupiter, too. Give generously, give again, give some more, then fork it over.

  6. noen

    Clearly Jupiter over indulged this Thanksgiving and needed to loosen it up a notch. Coming up next, father Jupiter will fall asleep in his barcalounger while watching the Big Game. Yay!

    p.s. Warren, don’t be such a dolt.

  7. Jon Hanford

    Perhaps Jupiter is getting ready to eject another “Venusian comet” ala Velikovsky? :)

  8. Jim

    “Astronomers thankful for return of Jupiter’s belt”

    So… what? Were they afraid Jupiter was about to drop trou?

  9. Crux Australis

    They were afraid of Jupiter’s Great Brown Eye.

  10. Crux Australis

    *giggles childishly*

  11. Jamie

    Hmmm, I’m not sure how I feel about this. I bought my first scope earlier this year and Jupiter has been an awesome target. But I’ve gotten to know and love it the way it is! Don’t change Jupiter, we love you as you are!

  12. I just got a note from Christopher Go (!) telling me it was a bright spot he saw, not a dark spot, indicating the belt was coming back, so I corrected the text.

  13. Brian Too

    That’s right, ol’ Jupiter just need a touch of the Thanksgiving nog to fix himself up right.

    Come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea…

  14. Troy

    Wow that was fast. I’m glad I got a chance to observe it beltless before it came back. (I only saw it once too busy for astronomy lately)

  15. Buzz Parsec

    Warren, in case you are new here, “enenate” is a running joke term for “enlarge”, based on a Simpson’s reference to “embigenate”, which is a perfectly cromulent word. 😉

  16. Monkey

    Uncle Al,
    I fear you need to stop watching Glenn Beck or whatever fills your mind with this junk. Or are you simply a drole troll?

  17. Buzz Parsec

    Oops, HTML fail… Should have been en”enate, but I forgot to quote the “<" so it treated my "fill-in-the-blank" as a tag. :-(

    P.S. I give up. I can't seem to insert a less-than sign without quoting it, but the quote marks appear even when I don't want them too… :-( :-(

  18. jupiters getting interesting

  19. MaDeR

    Uncle Al seems to be bot. I am not mean, I mean it literally. There are now bot wars between pro-GW bots and anti-GW bots, each drone spewing their propaganda/facts (depending where you stay). Hilarious and sad at the same time.

  20. I’m glad Jupiter got its belt back, too. Otherwise its pants might have fallen down.

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Lugosi : Actually, I think Jupiter wears a toga – being a Roman diety & all! 😉

  22. frankenstein_monster

    Does the Jupiter deserve a belt at all ? Do we deserve to have the Jupiter with a belt ? Do we deserve a gas giant in our solar system at all ?

  23. If you count Rush Limbaugh, our solar system actually has two gas giants in it.

  24. drx1

    Are you saying Rush Limbaugh is uranus? …. o that’s bad astronomy?

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @24. Lugosi Says:

    If you count Rush Limbaugh, our solar system actually has two gas giants in it.

    Okay so what happened to Saturn, Ouranos & Neptune – don’t you mean *five*?

    Besides, if we count Limbaugh then I think we have to count Mike Moore and Al Gore as well! 😉 😛

  26. Chris A.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jupiter is no more a “gas giant” than Earth is a “liquid planet” by virtue of the thin film of water on its surface we call “oceans.” The bulk of Jupiter is a liquid, not a gas. The fact that it’s made of stuff that we normally encounter as a gas is irrelevant.

  27. agreed! nice way of puttin’ it man


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