Thursday, May 27, 2010

What's up with Jupiter!?

I'm resigned to the fact that all the really cool things happening in the sky are going to happen at hours of the night when I'm comfortably and irretrievably ensconsed in my bed.

Interesting asteroid passes, novae...they're all on the list. Now, Jupiter's on it too.

The fifth planet in our solar system is a pretty dynamic body all on a regular basis. Giant storms the size of Earth or larger, psychedelic weather patterns, multiple moons that go round and cast visible shadows across its face. But now, it's got some real wild goings-on that would almost make it worth setting the alarm for the wee hours of the morning.

First, it's south equatorial belt. Because Jupiter is little more than a giant ball of gas, the planet is nothing but weather. And because of its massive size, it gained a lot of angular momentum as it formed from infalling gas. The result is that it also spins very fast - once every nine hours - which stretches out its weather systems.

The result is its iconic cloud bands. However, lately, Jupiter has been missing its south equatorial belt. Jupiter's Great Red Spot is reportedly visible without anything of the belt near it.

It's something of a mystery. Not unknown, it's happened before. Several times, actually including one I recall back in the early '90s. Even in my primitive Tasco reflector, Jupiter's Great Red Spot was quite noticeable without the competition of the dark, expansive southern belt. In fact, Jupiter's northern equatorial belt has expanded and become even darker.

Also recently, an amateur astronomer who recorded a black cloud that mysteriously appeared in Jupiter's south temperate zone last summer also recorded a bright flash in the atmosphere that can only have come from another impact. Amazing! So far, no sign of a black cloud like last summers or, most memorably, the comet impact of Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994, but stay tuned.

The problem? Jupiter doesn't rise until much, much too early in the morning for me. As an astronomer, understandably, I'm a bit of a night owl. "So?" you might say. "Suck it up, buttercup!"

Fair enough. Except that I have a little problem...a large two-storey strip mall to my south. So Jupiter doesn't rise high enough to clear the building before the sun rises. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

So, as the season progresses and Jupiter rises much the better. However, in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy my sleep.

Clear skies!

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