A new NASA portrait of Jupiter reveals its disappearing Great Red Spot in unprecedented color

jupiter great red spotThis new Hubble Space Telescope view of Jupiter, taken on June 27, 2019, reveals the giant planet's trademark Great Red Spot, and a more intense color palette in the clouds swirling in Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere than seen in previous years. The colors, and their changes, provide important clues to ongoing processes in Jupiter's atmosphere.NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center) and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)

A new NASA portrait immortalizes the dying storm on Jupiter's surface.

The Hubble Space Telescope captures annual snapshots of our solar system's gas giant planets, and NASA just published the latest set. The image of Jupiter stands out, however, since it shows the Great Red Spot and the clouds in Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere in unprecedented color.

The Great Red Spot is an ancient storm that's now about the size of Earth. But when scientists first spotted it in the 1800s, it was four times bigger.

The reasons the iconic tempest is shrinking are still mysterious, however.

Jupiter's annual portrait is more colorful than ever

Hubble's images help scientists keep track of storms, winds, and clouds on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. 

jupiter global mapThis image of Jupiter, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, represents a stretched-out map of the entire planet. These distinct bands of roiling clouds are characteristic of Jupiter's atmosphere.NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)

The Earth-orbiting telescope snapped the new image of Jupiter when the planet about 400 million miles from Earth and directly opposite the sun. That's why the picture could be rendered in such clear color.

Jupiter's stripes come from clouds of ammonia ice, which make up its upper atmosphere. Differences in the clouds' thickness and height create the colorful bands. Lighter stripes consist of thicker clouds that rise higher than the darker ones.

The cloud bands flow in opposite directions across the planet, and are kept in place by jet streams and 400 mile-per-hour winds, which prevent them from moving north and south. The bands sometimes change color though, and scientists can track those changes to find out what's going on in the Jupiter's atmosphere.

The white dots in the planet's southern hemisphere are anticyclones. 

NASA projected Hubble's flat image of Jupiter onto a sphere to create an animation (below) of Jupiter's rotation. The planet spins quickly, completing a rotation every 9.8 hours.

(The animation excludes the planet's polar regions, since Hubble's flat image did not capture those.)

The Great Red Spot could disappear in the next two decades

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is an anticyclone that swirls around a center of high atmospheric pressure. It rotates counterclockwise, the opposite direction of hurricanes on Earth.

jupiter great red spot juno perijove 7 nasa jpl swri msss sean doran flickr rotatedThe Great Red Spot of Jupiter, as seen by NASA's Juno spacecraft on July 10, 2017.NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran

The two cloud bands above and below the storm move in opposite directions, thereby holding the tempest in place. That's how it has existed for so long.

When astronomers first spotted the spot in the late 1800s, it was about 35,000 miles wide. When the nuclear-powered spacecraft Voyager 2 flew by the planet in 1979, the storm had shrunk to just over twice the width of our own planet.

Today, it is only 1.3 times the size of Earth.

Scientists aren't sure why or how the Great Red Spot is shrinking. To make matters more mysterious, it's also getting taller at the same time.

planet jupiter great red spot clouds juno nasa jpl caltech swri msss kevin m gill 36018946292_4a2ee972e1_kAn illustration of NASA's Juno probe flying over Jupiter's Great Red Spot superstorm.NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill (CC BY 2.0)

In a 2018 study, a team of NASA scientists analyzed observations of the anticyclone from the last 140 years. They found that as the storm shrinks, the force of its contraction is pushing it upward, like clay on a potter's wheel.

They also found that the spot recently started drifting west faster than ever before, and that its orange color has been getting deeper since 2014. That could be because the chemicals that color it are exposed to more UV radiation as the storm is pushed higher up. 

"If the trends we see in the Great Red Spot continue, the next five to 10 years could be very interesting from a dynamical point of view," Rick Cosentino, the co-author of that study, said in a press release. "We could see rapid changes in the storm's physical appearance and behavior, and maybe the red spot will end up being not so great after all."

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