Tiny sunspot 997 emerged yesterday and is already fading to invisibility. Credit: SOHO/MDI
CARTWHEEL CME: Imagine a billion-ton cloud of gas launching itself off the surface of the sun and then ... doing a cartwheel. That's exactly what happened on April 9, 2008, when a coronal mass ejection or "CME" pirouetted over the sun's limb in full view of an international fleet of spacecraft. The cartwheel set off a chain of events that amazed even veteran solar physicists Full story
SPACE FOSSIL: On May 23rd, Ralf Vandebergh trained his backyard telescope on the International Space Station (ISS) as it flew over his home in the Netherlands. The picture he took revealed a bright, modern spaceport, bustling with crew and docked spaceships (Jules Verne and Progress M64).
Minutes later, another object flew overhead, small, dim, and, unlike the ISS, from the past. "It was the upper stage of a legendary Vostok 8A92M rocket, the same rocket used in the 1960s during the first Russian manned flights," says Vandebergh. "This one was launched in 1979." He swung his telescope to the old rocket body, took a picture, and placed the image beside that of the ISS:
"It was no easy job to catch this small object," he says. "The Vostok was dim and moving really fast compared to the ISS, making it difficult to keep it in the crosshairs of my finderscope as I tracked the spacecraft manually across the sky."
"This is like a fossil of space history in our night sky," he says. Indeed, you never know what might be flying overhead--even fossils.
Jupiter Grows Third Red Spot
A potentially historic change is occurring on Jupiter. An upstart storm now rivals the gas giant's Big Red Spot as king of storms, astronomers announced last week.
The Little Red Spot, as it was named upon discovery in 2006, shows both size and speed in threatening to knock the former champion off its perch, with Junior's maximum winds reaching 384 mph (172 meters per second).
"In terms of maximum wind speed, the Little Red Spot as measured in 2007 and the Great Red Spot when last measured in 2000 are just about the same," said Andrew Cheng, physicist and lead study author at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
Those winds far outstrip the 156 mph threshold that defines a Category 5 hurricane on Earth, and the Little Red Spot itself appears nearly as big as our whole planet.
A third red spot on Jupiter was also announced last week by a different team, joining its larger super-storm cousins. The Great Red Spot has raged on for at least two centuries and perhaps as much as 350 years, ancient observations suggest.
Cheng's team used image maps made by the New Horizons spacecraft to gauge wind speed and direction.
The Hubble Space Telescope provided visible-light images of the storms, while the Very Large Telescope in Chile used mid-infrared to glimpse the thermal structure of the storms below the visible cloud tops.
The thermal heat images showed that the Little Red Spot may already match the Great Red Spot for size, although the latter still appears almost twice as large on the surface of Jupiter's atmosphere when examined in visible light.
"In the infrared, which sees deeper beneath those clouds, the Little Red Spot appears to be part of an interacting system that is actually larger than the Great Red Spot," Cheng told SPACE.com.
The Little Red Spot has steadily gained strength even as the Big Red Spot shrinks.
Both storms have winds that circulate in the opposite direction to that of a cyclone, or counterclockwise, and appear "strikingly similar," Cheng said.
Astronomers remain mystified by the angry red color of the storms. The Little Red Spot only changed color in late 2005 after it formed from earlier mergers of three smaller storms.
Similarly, the newest third red spot began as an oval white storm.
These latest findings support the theory that the most powerful storms dredge up material from below Jupiter's clouds and lift it into the upper atmosphere. That exposes the material to solar ultraviolet radiation and causes the color change to red.
The newcomer storm may end up merging with the Great Red Spot or getting pushed away when the two encounter each other in August, assuming their paths remain the same. The Little Red Spot lies at a lower latitude and will pass the Great Red Spot in June.
Such changes in Jupiter's weather come as part of a global upheaval that began before the New Horizons spacecraft visited last year.
The idea that Jupiter is undergoing global climate change was proposed in 2004 by Phil Marcus, a mechanical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley.
He predicted large changes in the southern hemisphere starting around 2006 that would destabilize jet streams and spawn new storms.
Much of the activity in the gas giant's South Equatorial Belt has disappeared and left the Great Red Spot isolated, foreshadowing even greater changes to come.
"The Great Red Spot may not always be the largest and strongest storm on Jupiter," said Glenn Orton, planetary scientist and study coauthor at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
2008 is also being known as the worst year in recorded history for large tornadoes. Related? You probably already know what I think..
TRICKY MOON SHADOWS: Amateur astronomer Mike Salway of Central Coast, Australia, woke up before dawn on May 25th to photograph Jupiter. The giant planet materialized in the eyepiece of his 12-inch telescope along with giant moon Ganymede and a deep, dark moon shadow just behind it on Jupiter's cloudtops. Contrary to appearances, however, the shadow did not come from Ganymede. Scroll down to find the source.
Salway's panoramic photo reveals the responsible moon: Europa.
Salway's panoramic photo reveals the responsible moon: Europa.
"As Ganymede was transiting Jupiter, Europa cast a shadow apparently nearby. Meanwhile, off to the right, Io was about to be eclipsed by the much larger shadow of Jupiter itself," he says. So many moons, so many shadows! It can get a little tricky, "especially at 5 o'clock in the morning."
Yet 5 o'clock in the morning is the best time to see Jupiter. Train your telescope on the brilliant "morning star" in the constellation Sagittarius and see if you can sort things out