Image: Three red spots on Jupiter
NASA / ESA / UC-Berkeley
In this image from the Hubble Space Telescope, Jupiter's newborn Red Spot is directly to the left of the Great Red Spot. The middle-sized Red Spot Jr. is below and between the two other storm systems.
msnbc.com
updated 5/22/2008 2:41:02 PM ET 2008-05-22T18:41:02

And baby makes three: Fresh imagery shows that a storm system has changed color in the planet Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere, creating a third "Red Spot" to join the centuries-old Great Red Spot and the 2-year-old Red Spot Jr.

The third reddish storm is just a fraction of the size of the other two, lying to the west of the Great Red Spot in the same latitude band of clouds.

The new red spot was previously colored white, like several other storms whirling nearby on Jupiter. The change to a red color indicated that the storm's clouds were rising to roughly the same altitude as the Great Red Spot's cloud tops, the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute said in an image advisory released Thursday.

Astronomers theorize that the red storms are so powerful that they dredge up material from the depths of the Jovian atmosphere to higher altitudes, where ultraviolet radiation from the sun is sparking an as-yet-undetermined chemical reaction that turns the material red.

The color change — and the atmospheric levels of the clouds — were documented in visible-light images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope on May 9 and 10, as well as near-infrared data gathered by the W.M. Keck Telescope in Hawaii on May 11. Astronomers determined that all three storms appeared bright in near-infrared light, signaling that they were towering above the methane in Jupiter's atmosphere.

The latest pictures show that the turbulence and storms first observed on Jupiter more than two years ago are still raging. The Hubble and Keck images also reveal the change from a rather bland, quiescent band surrounding the Great Red Spot just over a year ago to one of incredible turbulence on both sides of the spot.

Red Spot Jr. changed its color in late 2005 and early 2006. The Great Red Spot has persisted for as long as 200 to 350 years, based on early telescopic observations. If the new red spot and the Great Red Spot continue on their courses, they will encounter each other in August, and the small oval will either be absorbed or repelled from the Great Red Spot. Red Spot Jr. which lies between the two other spots, and is at a lower latitude, will pass the Great Red Spot in June.

The Hubble and Keck images may support the idea that Jupiter is in the midst of global climate change, as first proposed in 2004 by Phil Marcus, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. The planet's temperatures may be changing by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The giant planet is getting warmer near the equator and cooler near the south pole.

Marcus predicted that large-scale climate shifts would start in the southern hemisphere around 2006, causing the jet streams to become unstable and spawn new vortices.

"Whether or not Jupiter's climate has changed due to a predicted warming, the cloud activity over the last two and a half years shows dramatically that something unusual has happened," Marcus said in a Berkeley news release.

The Hubble team members are Imke de Pater, Phil Marcus, Mike Wong and Xylar Asay-Davis of Berkeley, Christopher Go of the Philippines. The Keck team members are de Pater, Wong and Berkeley's Conor Laver, as well as Al Conrad of the Keck Observatory. In Thursday's advisory, the Space Telescope Science Institute said JUPOS, an international amateur observing network, made "invaluable" contributions to the research.

This report is based on information from the Space Telescope Science Institute and UC-Berkeley.

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