News from Space: Jupiter’s Eye Disappearing

jupiterJupiter’s Red Eye, that trademark spot on the gas giant’s surface that is its most recognizable feature, appears to be shrinking faster than ever. Earlier this year, amateur astronomers had observed and photographed the Eye and noted that it had grown smaller. Shorlty thereafter, astronomers observed it using the Hubble Space Telescope and came to the same conclusion. Based on their calculations, they estimate that Jupiter’s Eye, a giant long-lasting storm, is narrowing by more than 900 kilometres a year, much faster than before.

At this rate, they claim, it will be gone by 2031 – just 17 years from now. Using historic sketches and photos from the late 1800s, astronomers determined the spot’s diameter then at 41,000 km (25,475 miles) across. Now, it is turned from a giant ovoid into a discrete circle that is a mere 16,500 kilometres (10,252 miles) across. Many who’ve attempted to see Jupiter’s signature feature have been frustrated in recent years not only because the spot’s pale color makes it hard to see  against adjacent cloud features, but because it’s physically getting smaller.

Jupiter-GRS-Hubble-shrink-panel-580x399As to what causing the drastic downsizing, there are no firm answers yet. However, NASA has a theory, which was shared by Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA:

In our new observations it is apparent that very small eddies are feeding into the storm. We hypothesized that these may be responsible for the accelerated change by altering the internal dynamics of the Great Red Spot.

Michael Wong, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, seems to be in agreement. He stated that one theory is the spot eats smaller storms, and that it is consuming fewer of them. But for the time being, scientists can’t be sure why its getting smaller, why the eye is red in the first place, or what will happen once it is completely gone.

Jupiters_EyeThe Great Red Spot has been a trademark of the planet for at least 400 years – a giant hurricane-like storm whirling in the planet’s upper cloud tops with a period of 6 days. But as it’s shrunk, its period has likewise grown shorter and now clocks in at about 4 days. The storm appears to be conserving angular momentum by spinning faster and wind speeds are increasing as well, making one wonder whether they’ll ultimately shrink the spot further or bring about its rejuvenation.

In short, the eye could become a thing of the past, the sort of thing children many years from now will only read about or see in pictures to give them some idea of how the Solar System once looked. Or, its possible that it could blow up again and become as it once was, a massive red Eye observable from millions of kilometres away. Who knows? In the meantime, check out this video by NASAJuno, explaining what little we know about Jupiter’s most prominent feature (while it lasts):

New Super-Earth Discovered

It has been an exciting year for the discovery exoplanets! First, there was the news from Gliese 581 g, then the discovery of an Earth-like planet in Alpha Centauri. And now, scientists working in the European Southern Observatory’s HARPS apparatus have announced the discovery of the latest Super-Earth, which they believe to be the greatest candidate for extra-terrestrial life yet.

The planet is located in the HD 40307 system, an orange dwarf star that is just 42 light years from Earth. Although scientists are still not entirely sure that it’s a rocky planet, there are a number of strong indications that point towards and hospital terrestrial environment. For starters, as the sixth and farthest planet in the system, it lies within the sun’s habitable zone.

Second, the planet has a very reasonable 320 day annual cycle, which means that it receives a similar amount of solar energy compared to Earth – about 62% of what we get year round. This is positive news since most Super-Earths are situated too close to their parent stars to boast life. And last, but not least, the planet is unique amongst its near-Earth exoplanet kin in that it is not tidally locked, meaning it has a night and day cycle. Though this is not absolutely crucial to life, it is a bonus seeing as how it means one side of the planet is  not constantly exposed to radiation while the other is constantly in a state of cold, life denying darkness.

Mikko Tuomi of the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, and Guillem Anglada-Escude from Germany’s University of Goettingen are chiefly responsible for this discovery. In the coming weeks, months and years, their team will be doing their best to ascertain the planet’s composition, which they hope to be rocky in nature. If this should prove to be the case, it will move to the top of likely candidates for exoplanet colonization, pushing such planets as Gliese 581 g, the most Earth-like exoplanet discovered to date, out of the top spot.

Source: Discovery News

The News From Saturn

Saturn has certainly been seen in the news a lot as of late. And you have the Cassini space probe, which was deployed from Earth back in 1997, to thank for all of that. Having completed the first leg of its mission back in 2008, its mission was extended to 2010, when most of the new photos and startling discoveries that are now being announced were made. Now, the healthy spacecraft is seeking to make exciting new discoveries in a second extended mission called the Cassini Solstice Mission.

But alas, the news! First, there was the announcement back in February that Saturn’s two largest moons – Titan and Rhea – were captured together in the same photo by the Cassini space probe. Considering that Saturn has 66 moons and Cassini was flying past at the time, this was no small accomplishment! What’s more, Titan’s atmosphere, which is fully developed (the only Saturnine moon to have this) was captured perfectly the shot.

But the news didn’t stop there. Shortly thereafter, in March to be specific, a report published in the Geophysical Research Letters announced that a thin layer of oxygen was discovered around Saturn’s moon of Dione. Once again, this discovery was made by the Cassini space probe as it passed by this other satellite of Saturn’s two years ago. This finding is proving to be quite the exciting one within the astronomical community.

Shortly after that, NASA announced that the moon of Enceladus did indeed have its own ocean. Named the Enceladan Ocean, this natural body of water has been known about for some time, but what is now known is the water contains carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, potassium salts and other organic materials. On top of that, it is now understood that it is situated above some volcanic jets, which means the water is most likely warm. Warm water, combined with organic minerals, makes the Enceladan Ocean a good candidate for life!

And then, in late July, images released by NASA showed that Cassini also caught a glimpse of a thunderstorm happening on Saturn’s surface. As all residents of Earth will surely agree, a thunderstorm is an impressive sight to behold. Especially when it’s seen happening on another planet! Apparently, what made this sighting most impressive was that it was visible on Saturn’s day side – aka. in broad daylight – from a range of 4.5 million km (2 million miles). That’s one humungous light show!

And less than a week ago, more information emerged as a result of the Cassini space probe, this time in relation to Saturn’s moon of Iapetus. After getting a good glimpse of the moon, scientists at NASA have determined that it is home to the largest ice avalanches in the Solar System, and is rivaled only by Mars. Take that Mount Everest! You too Olympus Mons!

Already, scientists had Iapetus pegged as the most intriguing moon in the Solar System. For starters, it has a Ying-Yang color pattern, looks like an inverted Death Star (check that image, no Photoshopping!), and has a long ridge running almost perfectly along Iapetus’ equator, a feature which earned it the nickname “the walnut moon”. I guess it wasn’t happy with just that, it also wanted to be the most dangerous place to downhill ski!

And you thought Jupiter did some badass things. Well, it does. But judging from all these findings, Saturn is going to be a pretty happening place someday. I can envision settlements on Titan, skiing on Iapetus, and terraforming on Dione. And for those who like to sight-see, there will be shuttle services that take you to the dark side of Saturn to witness the light show from space. Ooooh, I got goose bumps!

Via: BBC, IO9, Nature Geoscience, CICOPS, Time Science, and NASA

Virtual Mars Rover Landing Party!

As you all may know, the Curiosity Rover is on its way to Mars and due to land in just a few days. And it just so happens that my buddy and mentor, Fraser Cain of Universe Today, is hosting a virtual party to mark the event. He and his crew will be in Pasadena for the event, surrounded by NASA officials and people in the know and conducting interviews, while the rest of us will be able to watch through live video.

This is an historic occasion and I for one feel privileged that I know someone who has inside access 😉 Below is a copy of the original invitation inviting people to come by Google+ to join in the party. It promises to be a very informative time so I highly recommend people check it out any way they can. I also included the link to the NASA simulation (the shortened one this time) which shows what the deployment of the Curiosity Rover will look like. Enjoy!

“To celebrate the landing of NASA’s Curiosity Rover – the Mars Science Laboratory – we’ll be running a special live hangout. 

In conjunction with +CosmoQuest. We’ll have all your favorite space/astronomy journalists on hand to discuss the mission in depth, and celebrate the landing live, when it happens.

Over the course of this 4-hour Google+ Hangout on Air, we’ll interview members of the Curiosity team live in the hangout, as well as other special guests from the +The Planetary Society and the +SETI Institute.

+Scott Lewis and +Amy Shira Teitel will be on location at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to interview members of the engineering team, and show you what it’s like to be at NASA during this amazing moment.”