Red Storm Rising

Red Storm Rising

Red Storm Rising

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
May 31 2006 10:02 PM

Red Storm Rising

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Hey, remember the new red spot that's appeared on Jupiter? Recent observations have shown that it's slowly approaching its big brother, the Great Red Spot. Christopher Go, an astronomer, has created the website redspotjr.com to monitor it. He has a small 'scope, but he takes phenomenal images. The one above was taken by him, and shows how close the two storms are getting. Red Jr. is just above and to the right of the Big One. Go expects the two spots will pass each other around July.

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You may be wondering how a storm can pass another storm like that. When you look at Jupiter, you aren't seeing the surface. Jupiter may not have a real surface at all! We are seeing the tops of the clouds, and the atmosphere of Jupiter goes down for thousands of kilometers, until the fantastic pressure turns it into a liquid. This transition region is not sharp like it is on Earth (think about the sharp boundary between the air and the surface of the ocean), it's fuzzy. For hundreds of kilometers vertically it might be hard to tell air from liquid-- it's like a slushy glop. Jupiter's a very weird place.

What's weirder is that the atmosphere is banded, striped. Those are different wind patterns, something like the different winds on Earth, like the trade winds and the doldrums. The winds move at different speeds. Overall, Jupiter spins about once every 10 hours, but the storms drift a little compared to that. What this means is that over time, the Red Spot might overtake (or lag behind) another storm. In the picture of Jupiter above, see how the clouds to the left of the Great Red Spot look clean, but to the right they are all roiled up? The clouds on the right were whipped around the Spot, which is moving right-to-left very slowly as seen in this image. Think of running your finger through water: in front of your finger the water is calm, but behind it the water is disturbed. That's pretty much what's happening on Jupiter.

So right now, Red Jr. is moving toward Big Brother. Usually, there's not much mixing between the stripes, but I wonder what will happen when Jr. gets just above the bigger storm? Will it survive? Probably. But it might get mixed up. We'll see. And with fantastic images like Go's, we really will see!'