"Unraveling:" Something Weird is Happening to Jupiter's Great Red Spot as New Observations Could Spell the End of an Era
Jupiter's trademark red storm is breathing its last. An astronomical landmark as iconic as Saturn's rings, recent photographs have shown the Great Red Spot "unraveling." Preliminary reports came through near the end of May – and this phenomenon has been witnessed on a smaller scale before – but everyone started to sit up and take notice when the incidents kept happening.
Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer and long-time observer of the planet, captured photos of a gigantic orange plume estimated to be 10,000 kilometers long shearing off from the main storm and being carried away on a jet stream. According to Wesley, parts of the storm are peeling off as frequently as once every week. "I haven't seen this before in my 17-or-so years of imaging Jupiter," Wesley said. NASA JPL scientist Glenn Orton echoed his sentiments, calling it "uncharted territory."
Christopher Go in the Philippines also captured images that plainly show the left side of the storm distorted into a point as its material leaches into the equatorial zone.
Humanity quite literally has no memory of Jupiter without its Great Red Spot. This storm has raged for well over 400 years, ever since the planet was first observed in detail in the 1600s. Although the Great Red Spot is hardly the only storm on the planet's surface, most of them only last a few days before dissipating. The storm was once large enough to hold the equivalent of three Earths; now it can barely contain one. You can see how much the storm has changed in just nineteen years in the image below:
Image Credit: NASA/ESA
Citizen scientists are joining forces to get a better look at these filaments, Wesley told Space Weather Archive. It couldn't have come at a better time. Jupiter reaches what is called opposition on June 10th when it will be directly, well, opposite the Sun. (You didn't see that one coming, did you?) This coincides with the planet's closest approach to Earth, called the perigee. Anyone with a small telescope should be able to see the planet but, if you want to get a good look at the Great Red Spot, experts recommend a moderate 6-inch telescope or larger. We may not have many more chances.
Cover Image: NASA/JPL