The famed Hubble Space Telescope is tasked with keeping an eye on many important objects in the Universe, including Jupiter and its stormy red eye. After more than a decade of observations and collecting data, NASA has discovered that the gas giant’s Great Red Spot is speeding up.
Planetary scientists used data from Hubble’s observations of Jupiter between 2009 and 2020 to understand the planet over a full Jovian orbit around the sun. What they found was unexcepted. Over that time, Hubble detected that wind speeds on the outer edges of the storm increased by 8 percent. In 2009, wind velocity was typically around 201 mph (or 324 kph) – whereas today the velocity can reach up to 223 mph (360 kph). This increase was gradual over time, indicating that this trend will most likely continue.
In contrast, NASA said the innermost winds “are moving significantly more slowly, like someone cruising lazily on a sunny Sunday afternoon.” Both still appear to be moving counterclockwise.
While researchers know some winds are whipping around faster than others, the reason why is hard to conclude since Hubble is only able to collect data on what’s happening with cloud tops. It can’t peer into the inner workings and depths of the planet.
“When I initially saw the results, I asked ‘Does this make sense?’ No one has ever seen this before,” said Michael Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California at Berkeley and lead author. “But this is something only Hubble can do. Hubble’s longevity and ongoing observations make this revelation possible.”
The change in wind speed amounts to around 1.6 mph (2.67 kph) per Earth year. The speed change might not have been spotted if it weren’t for Hubble’s sharp eye.
“We’re talking about such a small change that if you didn’t have eleven years of Hubble data, we wouldn’t know it happened,” planetary scientist Amy Simon said in a NASA statement last Monday. Simon is co-author of a study on the red spot winds published in the Geophysical Research Letters.
While such a small change in wind speed may not seem significant, scientists can use this newfound research to better understand the physics that drive storms on Jupiter and on other planets.
“Hubble is the only telescope that has the kind of temporal coverage and spatial resolution that can capture Jupiter’s winds in this much detail,” noted Amy Simon in her research.
Assuming the aging Hubble telescope continues to function properly, despite the occasional technical glitch, there’s plenty of time to collect more data on the Great Red Spot that can give us better understandings. Don’t fail us now Hubble!