New images reveal Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and its smaller counterpart, Red Spot Jr., in stunning detail

noir lab jupiter hubble
Three images of Jupiter show the gas giant in different types of light: infrared (left), visible, and ultraviolet (right).

  • Two telescopes have captured stunning images of Jupiter in regular, infrared, and ultraviolet light.
  • The images can help astronomers study storms and hot spots in the planet’s atmosphere.
  • Infrared imaging revealed that Jupiter’s shrinking Great Red Spot is riddled with holes.
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Jupiter looks good in all kinds of light.

A set of images released Tuesday show the planet in infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light. The combination reveals Jupiter’s characteristic Great Red Spot – a cyclonic storm large enough to engulf the Earth – in stunning detail. Also visible in the photos is the Great Red Spot’s smaller counterpart, aptly nicknamed Red Spot Jr. That storm, whose scientific name is Oval BA, appears to the bottom right of the Great Red Spot in the visible-light and ultraviolet images.

Astronomers were able to photograph Jupiter’s atmosphere in these different wavelengths of light by using both a camera on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and an infrared imager on the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. The images were first captured on January 11, 2017.

Such photos can help researchers glean new insight into the super-storms, hot spots, and cyclones that define the gas giant’s stormy atmosphere.

The Great Red Spot is riddled with holes

noirlab jupiter hubble
This infrared view of Jupiter was created from data captured on January 11, 2017 by the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii.

The infrared image of Jupiter shows that the cloud cover of the Great Red Spot is full of holes. Through these gaps, heat from the planet’s surface is leaking into the atmosphere.

In visible light, the holes look like swaths of different, darker clouds, but the infrared image confirmed that there aren’t any clouds in those darker patches. They’re just gaps in the giant storm.

“It’s kind of like a jack-o-lantern,” Michael Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, said last year.

Wong helped produce the new infrared image of Jupiter. He thinks the Great Red Spot’s mottled visage could be explained by swirling wind currents.

“The closest analog is eddies in the ocean,” he said in a release. “As the storm clouds spin, you can get little anomalies from these eddies that form streaks by just winding up.”

noir lab jupiter hubble
This visible-light image of Jupiter was created from data captured by a camera on the Hubble Space Telescope on January 11, 2017.

To create the infrared images, Wong’s team used a technique called “lucky imaging.” That’s when a ground telescope takes many short-exposure images of the same spot, and researchers then select the sharpest ones (which are generally taken in moments when Earth’s atmosphere was creating little interference). By stitching together these images of each region, the researchers crafted a portrait of the entire planet.

Keeping tabs on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot using different types of imaging may help solve the mystery of its shrinking. In the 1800s, the Great Red Spot was almost 25,000 miles across. Since then it’s shrunk by 60% – according to Wong’s team, the spot is currently only 10,000 miles wide.

A view of Red Spot Jr.

noir lab jupiter hubble
This ultraviolet image of Jupiter was created from data captured by a camera on the Hubble Space Telescope on January 11, 2017.

Jupiter’s Red Spot Jr. formed in 2000, when three storms merged together. Although the region appears red in the visible-light image, that’s not always the case – when the spot first formed, it was white. Then it turned red several years later, and in the four years since Hubble took the newly released images, the red spot has changed back to white again.

Although Red Spot Jr. isn’t visible in the infrared-light view of Jupiter, four large hot spots near Jupiter’s equator do appear in the image. Like in the Great Red Spot, these bright patches are regions where heat from the planet below oozes into the atmosphere.

noirlab jupiter
This infrared view of Jupiter was created from data captured on January 11, 2017 by the international Gemini Observatory in Hawaii.

Another feature visible in the infrared image is a bright streak atop a darker patch in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

This band is likely a giant cyclone, or series of cyclones, nearly 45,000 miles wide.

noir lab jupiter hubble
Labels added to this Hubble image of Jupiter point out several atmospheric features, including the Great Red Spot, and Red Spot Jr.

At visible wavelengths, the cyclones appears dark brown, so this type of feature is known as a “brown barge.”

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed to this story.

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Earth’s north magnetic pole is on the move – here’s what will happen when our poles flip

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Did you know that Earth has two North Poles? There’s the geographic North Pole, which never changes. And there’s the magnetic North Pole, which is always on the move. And right now it’s moving faster than usual.

Over the past 150 years, the magnetic North Pole has casually wandered 685 miles across northern Canada. But right now it’s racing 25 miles a year to the northwest.

This could be a sign that we’re about to experience something humans have never seen before: a magnetic polar flip. And when this happens, it could affect much more than just your compass.

Alanna Mitchell: Right now on the surface of the planet, it looks like it’s just a bar magnet. Our compasses are just pointing to one pole at a time because there’s a dominant two-pole system.

But sometimes, Earth doesn’t always just have a single magnetic North and South Pole. Evidence suggests that, for hundreds to thousands of years at a time, our planet has had four, six, and even eight poles at a time. This is what has happened when the magnetic poles flipped in the past. And when it happens again, it won’t be good news for humans.

Now you might think, eight poles must be better than two. But the reality is that: Multiple magnetic fields would fight each other. This could weaken Earth’s protective magnetic field by up to 90% during a polar flip.

Earth’s magnetic field is what shields us from harmful space radiation which can damage cells, cause cancer, and fry electronic circuits and electrical grids. With a weaker field in place, some scientists think this could expose planes to higher levels of radiation, making flights less safe.

This could also disrupt the internal compass in many animals who use the magnetic field for navigation. Even more extreme, it could make certain places on the planet too dangerous to live. But what exactly will take place on the surface is less clear than what will undoubtedly happen in space.

Satellites and crewed space missions will need extra shielding that we’ll have to provide ourselves. Without it, intense cosmic and solar radiation will fry circuit boards and increase the risk of cancer in astronauts.

Our modern way of life could cease to exist. We know this because we’re already seeing a glimpse of this in an area called the South Atlantic Anomaly. Turns out, the direction of a portion of the magnetic field deep beneath this area has already flipped! And scientists say that’s one reason why the field has been steadily weakening since 1840.

As a result, the Hubble Space Telescope and other satellites often shut down their sensitive electronics as they pass over the area. And astronauts on the International Space Station reported seeing a higher number of bright flashes of light in their vision, thought to be caused by high-energy cosmic rays that the weaker field can’t hold back.

Since experts started measuring the Anomaly a few decades ago, it has grown in size and now covers a fifth (20.3%) of Earth’s surface, with no signs of shrinking anytime soon. This is so extreme that it could be a sign we’re on the brink of a polar flip, or we may already be in the midst of one!

But scientists remain skeptical, mainly because …

Mitchell: They don’t know. The last time the poles reversed was 780,000 years ago so it’s not like we have a record for this.

Turns out 780,000 years is over double the time Earth usually takes between flips.

Mitchell: In the past 65 million years since the last mass extinction there have been reversals roughly every 300,000 years.

So what gives? Well, scientists haven’t figured it out yet. It’s unnerving to think that our modern way of life – banking, the stock exchange, missile tracking, GPS – relies on the outcome of something we can neither predict, nor control. One study went so far as to estimate that a single, giant solar storm today could cost the US up to $41.5 billion a day in damages.

And that’s with Earth’s magnetic field at its current strength. It’s frightening to imagine the devastation a storm would bring to an Earth with a magnetic field only 10% as strong.

We may not be able to stop a polar flip, but we can at least start to take measures to minimize the damage. The first step? Figure out what’s going on with this whacky field.

On the hunt are the European Space Agency’s SWARM satellites, which are collecting the most precise data on the strength of Earth’s magnetic field. Right now, they could be our greatest hope for solving this riddle.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published on April 9, 2018.

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NASA shared some interstellar fireworks to bring 2020 to an end. The Orion Nebula looks like a rainbow canvas peppered with dots of light.

orion nebula
A composite image of the Orion Nebula, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space telescope.

  • NASA’s final “Image of the Day” for 2020 depicts the Orion Nebula, located 1,500 light-years from Earth.
  • The Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes captured the stunning, colorful image.
  • Nebulae are giant clouds of gas and dust where new stars are born.
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NASA decided to share some interstellar fireworks to end an unforgettable year.

The agency posts an “image of the day,” every day, and the final image of 2020 did not disappoint.

A canvas of color, NASA’s December 31 image of the day depicts a composite image of the Orion Nebula, captured by the Hubble Space and Spitzer Space Telescopes.

It’s located more than 1,500 light-years away from Earth.

Nebulae like this one are interstellar nurseries¬† – giant clouds of gas and dust in space that cradle infant stars as they’re born. Some nebulae form as stars die: As a star’s core cools, it starts to shed its outer layers, which disperse to form gaseous clouds.

A rainbow canvas

To the naked eye, nebulae wouldn’t actually look like rainbow canvases peppered with dots of lights (which typically show new stars forming).

Cepheus nebula
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured two nebula, or clouds of gas and dust. On the left, baby stars (the red and yellow dots) are born in a dark clearing of the nebula.

When space telescopes like the Hubble image the hydrogen, sulfur, and carbon molecules that make up nebulae like Orion, they don’t capture color. Rather, Hubble records particles of light, which NASA can then view through different filters that only let in certain wavelengths of color. Then they assign color to the particles that come through those filters (light than came through the red filter is assigned a red color, for example.)

Helix Nebula
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this image of the Helix Nebula, which is located in the constellation Aquarius-about 700 light-years away from Earth.

By combining images of the same nebula viewed with different filters, the agency can create a composite, color image like the ones shown above.

“We often use color as a tool, whether it is to enhance an object’s detail or to visualize what ordinarily could never be seen by the human eye,” NASA said.

There are roughly 3,000 nebulae in our galaxy.

The closest known nebula to our planet is the Helix Nebula, the cosmic remnant of a dying star. It’s about half the distance from Earth as the Orion Nebula is – 700 light-years (so if you traveled at the speed of light, it’d take you 700 years to get there).

The Hubble Space Telescope has been imaging nebulae for 30 years, and these images help scientists learn more about how these cosmic clouds evolve, or even dim and shrink, over time.

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