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Jupiter Gets The Measles





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Published on Dec 29, 2009 ... Hubble's Universe Unfiltered (Episode 4): Jupiter Gets The Meases.

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The most prominent feature on the planet Jupiter is a large, ruddy oval that is simply called the Great Red Spot (GRS). The GRS is a giant storm in Jupiter's atmosphere that has been remarkably stable. In fact, it may have been observed as early as the 1660s. During the intervening centuries, the GRS was not just the largest, but also the only red spot ever seen on Jupiter.

That situation changed when a formerly white storm turned brown in late 2005, and then red in early 2006. And yet another red spot appeared in spring 2008. After such consistency for hundreds of years, Jupiter appears to be breaking out in red spots. Join us for a look at this historic case of planetary measles.


Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest planet within the Solar System. It is a gas giant with a mass slightly less than one-thousandth that of the Sun but is two and a half times the mass of all of the other planets in our Solar System combined. Jupiter is classified as a gas giant along with Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Together, these four planets are sometimes referred to as the Jovian planets.

The planet was known by astronomers of ancient times and was associated with the mythology and religious beliefs of many cultures. The Romans named the planet after the Roman god Jupiter.

Jupiter is primarily composed of hydrogen with a quarter of its mass being helium; it may also have a rocky core of heavier elements. Because of its rapid rotation, Jupiter's shape is that of an oblate spheroid (it possesses a slight but noticeable bulge around the equator).

The outer atmosphere is visibly segregated into several bands at different latitudes, resulting in turbulence and storms along their interacting boundaries. A prominent result is the Great Red Spot, a giant storm that is known to have existed since at least the 17th century when it was first seen by telescope.

Surrounding the planet is a faint planetary ring system and a powerful magnetosphere. There are also at least 63 moons, including the four large moons called the Galilean moons that were first discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Ganymede, the largest of these moons, has a diameter greater than that of the planet Mercury.

Jupiter has been explored on several occasions by robotic spacecraft, most notably during the early Pioneer and Voyager flyby missions and later by the Galileo orbiter. The most recent probe to visit Jupiter was the Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft in late February 2007.


Great Red Spot and other storms

The best known feature of Jupiter is the Great Red Spot, a persistent anticyclonic storm located 22° south of the equator that is larger than Earth. It is known to have been in existence since at least 1831, and possibly since 1665.

Mathematical models suggest that the storm is stable and may be a permanent feature of the planet. The storm is large enough to be visible through Earth-based telescopes with an aperture of 12 cm or larger.

The oval object rotates counterclockwise, with a period of about six days. The Great Red Spot's dimensions are 2440,000 km × 1214,000 km. It is large enough to contain two or three planets of Earth's diameter.

Storms such as this are common within the turbulent atmospheres of gas giants. Jupiter also has white ovals and brown ovals, which are lesser unnamed storms.

White ovals tend to consist of relatively cool clouds within the upper atmosphere. Brown ovals are warmer and located within the "normal cloud layer". Such storms can last as little as a few hours or stretch on for centuries.

Even before Voyager proved that the feature was a storm, there was strong evidence that the spot could not be associated with any deeper feature on the planet's surface, as the Spot rotates differentially with respect to the rest of the atmosphere, sometimes faster and sometimes more slowly. During its recorded history it has traveled several times around the planet relative to any possible fixed rotational marker below it.

In 2000, an atmospheric feature formed in the southern hemisphere that is similar in appearance to the Great Red Spot, but smaller in size. This was created when several smaller, white oval-shaped storms merged to form a single feature—these three smaller white ovals were first observed in 1938. The merged feature was named Oval BA, and has been nicknamed Red Spot Junior. It has since increased in intensity and changed color from white to red.


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