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“No One Has Ever Seen This Before” – Hubble Shows Winds in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Are Accelerating



Attention, motorsports fans: pay attention! The advantage of being in the innermost lane is no longer predictable. In Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a storm that has been roiling for centuries, the speed of the "outer lane" is moving faster than the speed of the "inner lane" – and the speed of the outer lane is continuing to increase. Researchers discovered that the winds in this high-speed ring have increased by up to 8% over the course of the study period, which runs from 2009 to 2020. These discoveries could only be made possible thanks to Hubble: For the planets in our solar system, the telescope has collected more than a decade of regular observations, serving as a "storm watcher."


The winds in the outermost "lane" of Jupiter's Great Red Spot are increasing in speed, similar to that of a racing driver on the track ahead of him – a discovery made possible only by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which has been monitoring the planet for more than a decade and has detected the phenomenon.


Hubble's regular "storm reports" were examined by researchers, who discovered that the average wind speed just within the boundaries of a storm, known as a high-speed ring, has increased by up to 8 percent between 2009 and 2020. For comparison, wind speeds close to the center of the red spot's innermost region are considerably slower, reminiscent of someone cruising lazily down a sunny Sunday afternoon highway.


With winds exceeding 400 miles per hour, the massive storm's crimson-colored clouds spin counterclockwise around the Earth, creating a vortex that is larger than the planet itself. One of the reasons the red spot is legendary is that humans have been observing it for more than 150 years.


"When I first saw the results, I thought to myself, 'Does this make any sense?' The findings, which were published in Geophysical Research Letters, were "unprecedented," according to Michael Wong of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the research team. "However, this is something that only Hubble is capable of." It is only because of Hubble's longevity and ongoing observations that this discovery is possible."


Storms on Earth are tracked in real time with the help of Earth-orbiting satellites and airplanes that fly over the planet. In part, this is due to the lack of a storm chaser plane at Jupiter, which means that scientists are unable to continuously measure the winds on the planet's surface, according to Amy Simon of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who contributed to the research. Jupiter's winds were captured in such fine detail by Hubble because it is the only telescope with the kind of temporal coverage and spatial resolution that Hubble possesses.


In one Earth year, the change in wind speeds that they have measured with Hubble amounts to less than 1.6 miles per hour (1.6 kilometers per hour). "We're talking about such a minute change that if we didn't have eleven years of Hubble data, we wouldn't have known it had occurred," Simon explained. We have the precision we need to spot a trend because of Hubble's capabilities." Researchers can revisit and analyze Hubble's data in great detail as new data is added as a result of the ongoing monitoring of the spacecraft. Small features in the storm that Hubble can detect are only 105 miles across, or about twice the length of Rhode Island, according to the spacecraft's instruments.


We discovered that the average wind speed in the Great Red Spot has been gradually increasing over the past decade, Wong continued. "We have one example in which our analysis of the two-dimensional wind map revealed abrupt changes in 2017, when there was a major convective storm nearby," says the researcher.


Wong adopted a novel approach to data analysis in order to better analyze Hubble's trove of information. Each time Jupiter was observed by Hubble, he used software to track tens to hundreds of thousands of wind vectors (direction and speed) in different directions. As Wong explains, "It provided me with a significantly more consistent set of velocity measurements." "I also conducted a series of statistical tests to determine whether it was appropriate to refer to this as an increase in wind speed. "Yes, it is."


Is there a significance to the increase in speed? "It's difficult to diagnose because Hubble can't see the bottom of the storm very well because of the clouds." "Anything that is below the cloud tops is not visible in the data," Wong clarified. The data is interesting because it can help us understand what is causing the Great Red Spot to flare up and how it is retaining its energy. There is still a lot of work to be done in order to fully comprehend it.


Since the 1870s, astronomers have been conducting ongoing investigations into the "king" of solar system storms. The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is caused by an upwelling of material from the planet's interior. When viewed from the side, the storm appears to be a three-tiered wedding cake, with high clouds in the center cascading down to the lower layers of the cake's outer layers. In observations spanning more than a century, astronomers have observed that the moon is shrinking in size and becoming more circular rather than oval in shape. The current diameter of the asteroid is 10,000 miles across, which means that the entire planet could still fit inside it.


Additionally, in addition to observing this legendary, long-lived storm, scientists have observed storms on other planets, including Neptune, where storms tend to travel across the planet's surface and disappear over a period of only a few years. Researchers can use this type of research to not only learn more about individual planets, but also to draw conclusions about the underlying physics that drive and maintain storms on the planets' surfaces.

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