Features

Published: Saturday May 17, 2014 MYT 7:40:00 PM
Updated: Saturday May 17, 2014 MYT 9:21:32 AM

From great to not-so-great: Jupiter's red spot shrinks to smallest size yet

One of Jupiter’s most distinctive features – the Great Red Spot – is shrinking, according to new images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The spot, which is a violent storm, is considered to be the biggest in the Solar System. In images taken by space telescopes and probes, the storm appears as a deep red orb surrounded by layers of pale yellow, orange and white. Winds inside the storm have been measured at several hundreds of miles per hour.

The spot was first conclusively spotted by Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini – who, incidentally, had a NASA probe sent to Jupiter named after him – in 1665, and subsequently first represented by artist Donato Creti in a series of paintings of the heavenly bodies around 1700.

It's huge: Like the eye of Sauron, Jupiter's Great Red Spot is intimidating in size and ferocity. Above is a 1979 photo of the spot taken by the Voyager space craft, the first ever close-ups taken of the storm. Below is a size comparison between Earth and the spot – we are puny.

However, a gap of more than a century between pre-modern and modern sightings of the spot have cast doubts on whether the original storm spotted by Cassini in the 17th century is the same as the one still spinning in Jupiter’s atmosphere right now. If it is, it would make the Great Red Spot the longest-lasting storm in the Solar System.

But it seems as though the storm is gradually running out of steam. Pictures taken by the Earth-orbiting Hubble space telescope released on May 15 show Jupiter’s red spot is smaller than it has ever been, measuring just under 16,100km in diametre. It also appears more circular in shape.

It's definitely not the titanic weather beast it used to be. In the late 1800s, it was estimated to be about 40,000km in diametre – wide enough to fit three Earths placed side by side. By the time NASA’s Voyager space probes flew by in 1979 and 1980 and transmitted the first close-up photos of the storm, the spot was down to about 22,500km across.

Great news for people who are afraid of storms, the Great Red Spot is shrinking, as can be seen in these photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. 

Scientists aren’t sure why the Great Red Spot is shrinking – at a rate of about 1,000km a year. “It is apparent that very small eddies are feeding into the storm. These may be responsible for the accelerated change by altering the (storm’s) internal dynamics,” Amy Simon, an astronomer with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.

Simon and colleagues plan follow-up studies to try to figure out what is happening in Jupiter’s atmosphere that is draining the storm of energy and causing it to shrink. Perhaps it’s on a diet. – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Features, Astronomy, Jupiter, Great Red Spot, Hubble Space Telescope, NASA, storm, shrinking, photographs

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