Anthony Wesley via The Planetary Society
These comparison photos of Jupiter taken by amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley and posted by The Planetary Society show the planet's lost Southern Equatorial Belt on May 9, 2010. 
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updated 5/13/2010 1:41:40 PM ET 2010-05-13T17:41:40

A giant cloud belt in the southern half of Jupiter has apparently disappeared according to new photos of the planet taken by amateur astronomers.

The new Jupiter photos, taken May 9 by Australian astronomer Anthony Wesley, reveal that the huge reddish band of clouds that make up the planet's Southern Equatorial Belt has faded from view.

Jupiter's trademark Great Red Spot, a massive storm that could fit two Earths inside, is typically found along the edges of the planet's Southern Equatorial Belt (SEB). When the southern cloud belt fades from view, the Great Red Spot stands out along with Jupiter's Northern Equatorial Belt of clouds in telescope views.

"It was evident to Jupiter watchers late last year that the planet was going into one of these SEB fading cycles, but then it was lost behind the sun for several months and naturally everyone who follows these things was eager to take images as soon as possible after its re-emergence in March," Wesley told Space.com in an e-mail.

"As it moves away from the sun (from our point of view) it will be possible to capture even better images and perhaps we will be watching later this year or next year when the SEB revival takes place. The timing of this revival is not known, but historically this is a very dynamic event with planet-wide outbreaks of violent storms around the SEB latitude and eventually clearing away the obscuring clouds to reveal the dark SEB once more," he added.

Wesley's photos were also released by The Planetary Society in California, which added that Jupiter's Southern Equatorial Belt tends to fade from view about every three to 15 years.

"Jupiter with only one belt is almost like seeing Saturn when its rings are edge-on and invisible for a time — it just doesn't look right," wrote skywatcher Bob King of Duluth, Minn., in a May 10 entry of his blog "Astro Bob" while discussing Wesleyan's surprising Jupiter views.

Jupiter is currently shining very bright in the eastern sky before sunrise.

Wesley is a veteran Jupiter watcher and posted the new shots on his website. It was he who first spotted a dark blemish on the planet in July 2009 that pointed to an impact on Jupiter, most likely from a comet. Wesley also spotted a giant blizzard on Saturn that is currently raging.

"Jupiter is a joy to observe and image, its dynamic atmosphere and brightly colored clouds mean that every view is different to the last even from one day to the next, and driven by the internal heat from deep inside the atmosphere you can be sure there is always something violent and interesting going on," Wesley said.

Changes in Jupiter's weather are not uncommon.

Last year, astronomers announced that Jupiter's Great Red Spot – which has raged for at least 300 years – appeared to be shrinking.  In 2008, other red spot-like storms (smaller than Great Red) showed changes as well, while activity in the Southern Equatorial Belt also appeared to slow down.

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and no stranger to weird weather.

Earlier this year, astronomers announced that the gas giant likely has helium rain showers from time to time. Jupiter has also tended to grow a variety of new storms, or spots, with some even changing color between white and red during dramatic climate changes on the gas giant.

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Photos: Jewels from Jupiter

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  1. Jupiter loses a stripe

    The weather on Jupiter is changeable, as these before-and-after pictures show. The photograph on the left shows Jupiter as seen in June 2009. The photo on the right, taken on May 9, 2010, reveals that one of the planet's prominent dark cloud belts has faded away. The lightening of the South Equatorial Belt is due to atmospheric changes. Both pictures were taken by Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer in Australia. (Anthony Wesley via The Planetary Society) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Family portrait

    Launched in 1989, the Galileo spacecraft has photographed Jupiter as well as several of the giant planet's satellites. Here's a montage that shows Jupiter's Great Red Spot and the four largest moons. From top, they are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cratered Callisto

    Callisto is considered the most cratered celestial body in the solar system. The false-color overlay at right exaggerates the moon's surface features, including the Valhalla impact structure near the center of the disk. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dark face

    Colors are enhanced in this view of Ganymede's trailing hemisphere, highlighting the moon's polar caps. The violet color indicates where small particles of frost may be scattering light on the blue end of the spectrum. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Cloudy weather

    The mosaic at left shows the true colors of the cloud patterns in Jupiter's northern hemisphere. The rendition at right uses false colors to represent the height and thickness of the cloud cover. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. This is the Spot

    A true-color picture captures the subtle shadings of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a massive, long-lived storm system in the planet's thick atmosphere. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A big splash on Europa

    A computer-generated perspective view shows the Pwyll impact crater on Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. The heights are exaggerated, but the central peak indicates that the crater may have been modified shortly after its formation by the flow of underlying warm ice. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A blast at Io

    This image of Io, thought to be the solar system's most volcanically active world, shows the plumes of two eruptions. One plume can be seen at the very edge of the disk, the other is puffing up from the dark volcanic ring near the center of the disk. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lava light

    An active volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io flares in an image taken in February 2000 by the Galileo spacecraft. The dark L-shaped lava flow to the left of center marks the site of energetic eruptions in November 1999 at Tvashtar Catena, which is a chain of giant volcanic calderas. The two small bright spots at left side of image are sites where molten rock is exposed to the surface at the toes of lava flows. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Crazy quilt

    The thin crust of Europa's Conamara region is criss-crossed by craters, cracks and lines - indicating that the surface ice was repeatedly disrupted. The colors, which are enhanced in this view, show where light ice crystals and dark contaminants have settled onto the surface. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A moving moon

    In a picture taken in April 2001 by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, the moon Io looks like a marble set against the background of Jupiter. Io is the giant planet's third-largest satellite. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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