Category: jupiter

Frozen: Ice on Earth and Well Beyond

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Icy Hearts: A heart-shaped calving front of a glacier in Greenland (left) and Pluto’s frozen plains (right). Credits: NASA/Maria-Jose Viñas and NASA/APL/SwRI

From deep below the soil at Earth’s polar regions to Pluto’s frozen heart, ice exists all over the solar system…and beyond. From right here on our home planet to moons and planets millions of miles away, we’re exploring ice and watching how it changes. Here’s 10 things to know:

1. Earth’s Changing Ice Sheets

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An Antarctic ice sheet. Credit: NASA

Ice sheets are massive expanses of ice that stay frozen from year to year and cover more than 6 million square miles. On Earth, ice sheets extend across most of Greenland and Antarctica. These two ice sheets contain more than 99 percent of the planet’s freshwater. However, our ice sheets are sensitive to the changing climate.

Data from our GRACE satellites show that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland have been losing mass since at least 2002, and the speed at which they’re losing mass is accelerating.

2. Sea Ice at Earth’s Poles

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Earth’s polar oceans are covered by stretches of ice that freezes and melts with the seasons and moves with the wind and ocean currents. During the autumn and winter, the sea ice grows until it reaches an annual maximum extent, and then melts back to an annual minimum at the end of summer. Sea ice plays a crucial role in regulating climate – it’s much more reflective than the dark ocean water, reflecting up to 70 percent of sunlight back into space; in contrast, the ocean reflects only about 7 percent of the sunlight that reaches it. Sea ice also acts like an insulating blanket on top of the polar oceans, keeping the polar wintertime oceans warm and the atmosphere cool.

Some Arctic sea ice has survived multiple years of summer melt, but our research indicates there’s less and less of this older ice each year. The maximum and minimum extents are shrinking, too. Summertime sea ice in the Arctic Ocean now routinely covers about 30-40 percent less area than it did in the late 1970s, when near-continuous satellite observations began. These changes in sea ice conditions enhance the rate of warming in the Arctic, already in progress as more sunlight is absorbed by the ocean and more heat is put into the atmosphere from the ocean, all of which may ultimately affect global weather patterns.

3. Snow Cover on Earth

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Snow extends the cryosphere from the poles and into more temperate regions.

Snow and ice cover most of Earth’s polar regions throughout the year, but the coverage at lower latitudes depends on the season and elevation. High-elevation landscapes such as the Tibetan Plateau and the Andes and Rocky Mountains maintain some snow cover almost year-round. In the Northern Hemisphere, snow cover is more variable and extensive than in the Southern Hemisphere.

Snow cover the most reflective surface on Earth and works like sea ice to help cool our climate. As it melts with the seasons, it provides drinking water to communities around the planet.

4. Permafrost on Earth

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Tundra polygons on Alaska’s North Slope. As permafrost thaws, this area is likely to be a source of atmospheric carbon before 2100. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Charles Miller

Permafrost is soil that stays frozen solid for at least two years in a row. It occurs in the Arctic, Antarctic and high in the mountains, even in some tropical latitudes. The Arctic’s frozen layer of soil can extend more than 200 feet below the surface. It acts like cold storage for dead organic matter – plants and animals.

In parts of the Arctic, permafrost is thawing, which makes the ground wobbly and unstable and can also release those organic materials from their icy storage. As the permafrost thaws, tiny microbes in the soil wake back up and begin digesting these newly accessible organic materials, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere.

Two campaigns, CARVE and ABoVE, study Arctic permafrost and its potential effects on the climate as it thaws.

5. Glaciers on the Move

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Did you know glaciers are constantly moving? The masses of ice act like slow-motion rivers, flowing under their own weight. Glaciers are formed by falling snow that accumulates over time and the slow, steady creep of flowing ice. About 10 percent of land area on Earth is covered with glacial ice, in Greenland, Antarctica and high in mountain ranges; glaciers store much of the world’s freshwater.

Our satellites and airplanes have a bird’s eye view of these glaciers and have watched the ice thin and their flows accelerate, dumping more freshwater ice into the ocean, raising sea level.

6. Pluto’s Icy Heart

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The nitrogen ice glaciers on Pluto appear to carry an intriguing cargo: numerous, isolated hills that may be fragments of water ice from Pluto’s surrounding uplands. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto’s most famous feature – that heart! – is stone cold. First spotted by our New Horizons spacecraft in 2015, the heart’s western lobe, officially named Sputnik Planitia, is a deep basin containing three kinds of ices – frozen nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide.

Models of Pluto’s temperatures show that, due the dwarf planet’s extreme tilt (119 degrees compared to Earth’s 23 degrees), over the course of its 248-year orbit, the latitudes near 30 degrees north and south are the coldest places – far colder than the poles. Ice would have naturally formed around these latitudes, including at the center of Sputnik Planitia.

New Horizons also saw strange ice formations resembling giant knife blades. This “bladed terrain” contains structures as tall as skyscrapers and made almost entirely of methane ice, likely formed as erosion wore away their surfaces, leaving dramatic crests and sharp divides. Similar structures can be found in high-altitude snowfields along Earth’s equator, though on a very different scale.

7. Polar Ice on Mars

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This image, combining data from two instruments aboard our Mars Global Surveyor, depicts an orbital view of the north polar region of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mars has bright polar caps of ice easily visible from telescopes on Earth. A seasonal cover of carbon dioxide ice and snow advances and retreats over the poles during the Martian year, much like snow cover on Earth.

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This animation shows a side-by-side comparison of CO2 ice at the north (left) and south (right) Martian poles over the course of a typical year (two Earth years). This simulation isn’t based on photos; instead, the data used to create it came from two infrared instruments capable of studying the poles even when they’re in complete darkness. This data were collected by our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Global Surveyor. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

During summertime in the planet’s north, the remaining northern polar cap is all water ice; the southern cap is water ice as well, but remains covered by a relatively thin layer of carbon dioxide ice even in summertime.

Scientists using radar data from our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found a record of the most recent Martian ice age in the planet’s north polar ice cap. Research indicates a glacial period ended there about 400,000 years ago. Understanding seasonal ice behavior on Mars helps scientists refine models of the Red Planet’s past and future climate.

8. Ice Feeds a Ring of Saturn

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Wispy fingers of bright, icy material reach tens of thousands of kilometers outward from Saturn’s moon Enceladus into the E ring, while the moon’s active south polar jets continue to fire away. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s rings and many of its moons are composed of mostly water ice – and one of its moons is actually creating a ring. Enceladus, an icy Saturnian moon, is covered in “tiger stripes.” These long cracks at Enceladus’ South Pole are venting its liquid ocean into space and creating a cloud of fine ice particles over the moon’s South Pole. Those particles, in turn, form Saturn’s E ring, which spans from about 75,000 miles (120,000 kilometers) to about 260,000 miles (420,000 kilometers) above Saturn’s equator. Our Cassini spacecraft discovered this venting process and took high-resolution images of the system.

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Jets of icy particles burst from Saturn’s moon Enceladus in this brief movie sequence of four images taken on Nov. 27, 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

9. Ice Rafts on Europa

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View of a small region of the thin, disrupted, ice crust in the Conamara region of Jupiter’s moon Europa showing the interplay of surface color with ice structures. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa is crisscrossed by long fractures. During its flybys of Europa, our Galileo spacecraft observed icy domes and ridges, as well as disrupted terrain including crustal plates that are thought to have broken apart and “rafted” into new positions. An ocean with an estimated depth of 40 to 100 miles (60 to 150 kilometers) is believed to lie below that 10- to 15-mile-thick (15 to 25 km) shell of ice.

The rafts, strange pits and domes suggest that Europa’s surface ice could be slowly turning over due to heat from below. Our Europa Clipper mission, targeted to launch in 2022, will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Europa to see whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.

10. Crater Ice on Our Moon

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The image shows the distribution of surface ice at the Moon’s south pole (left) and north pole (right), detected by our Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument. Credit: NASA

In the darkest and coldest parts of our Moon, scientists directly observed definitive evidence of water ice. These ice deposits are patchy and could be ancient. Most of the water ice lies inside the shadows of craters near the poles, where the warmest temperatures never reach above -250 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the very small tilt of the Moon’s rotation axis, sunlight never reaches these regions.

A team of scientists used data from a our instrument on India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft to identify specific signatures that definitively prove the water ice. The Moon Mineralogy Mapper not only picked up the reflective properties we’d expect from ice, but was able to directly measure the distinctive way its molecules absorb infrared light, so it can differentiate between liquid water or vapor and solid ice.

With enough ice sitting at the surface – within the top few millimeters – water would possibly be accessible as a resource for future expeditions to explore and even stay on the Moon, and potentially easier to access than the water detected beneath the Moon’s surface.

11. Bonus: Icy World Beyond Our Solar System!

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With an estimated temperature of just 50K, OGLE-2005-BLG-390L b is the chilliest exoplanet yet discovered. Pictured here is an artist’s concept. Credit: NASA

OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, the icy exoplanet otherwise known as Hoth, orbits a star more than 20,000 light years away and close to the center of our Milky Way galaxy. It’s locked in the deepest of deep freezes, with a surface temperature estimated at minus 364 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 220 Celsius)!

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What’s Up For September 2018?

Outstanding views Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars with the naked eye!

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You’ll have to look quickly after sunset to catch Venus. And through binoculars or a telescope, you’ll see Venus’s phase change dramatically during September – from nearly half phase to a larger thinner crescent!

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Jupiter, Saturn and Mars continue their brilliant appearances this month. Look southwest after sunset.

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Use the summer constellations help you trace the Milky Way.

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Sagittarius: where stars and some brighter clumps appear as steam from the teapot.

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Aquila: where the Eagle’s bright Star Altair, combined with Cygnus’s Deneb, and Lyra’s Vega mark the Summer Triangle. 

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Cassiopeia, the familiar “w”- shaped constellation completes the constellation trail through the Summer Milky Way. Binoculars will reveal double stars, clusters and nebulae. 

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Between September 12th and the 20th, watch the Moon pass from near Venus, above Jupiter, to the left of Saturn and finally above Mars! 

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Both Neptune and brighter Uranus can be spotted with some help from a telescope this month.

Look at about 1:00 a.m. local time or later in the southeastern sky. You can find Mercury just above Earth’s eastern horizon shortly before sunrise. Use the Moon as your guide on September 7 and 8th.

And although there are no major meteor showers in September, cometary dust appears in another late summer sight, the morning Zodiacal light. Try looking for it in the east on moonless mornings very close to sunrise. To learn more about the Zodiacal light, watch “What’s Up” from March 2018.

Watch the full What’s Up for September Video: 

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Solar System 10 Things: Two Years of Juno at J…

Our Juno mission arrived at the King of Planets in July 2016. The intrepid robotic explorer has been revealing Jupiter’s secrets ever since. 

Here are 10 historic Juno mission highlights:

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1. Arrival at a Colossus

After an odyssey of almost five years and 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion kilometers), our Juno spacecraft fired its main engine to enter orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Juno, with its suite of nine science instruments, was the first spacecraft to orbit the giant planet since the Galileo mission in the 1990s. It would be the first mission to make repeated excursions close to the cloud tops, deep inside the planet’s powerful radiation belts.

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2. Science, Meet Art

Juno carries a color camera called JunoCam. In a remarkable first for a deep space mission, the Juno team reached out to the general public not only to help plan which pictures JunoCam would take, but also to process and enhance the resulting visual data. The results include some of the most beautiful images in the history of space exploration.

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3. A Whole New Jupiter

It didn’t take long for Juno—and the science teams who hungrily consumed the data it sent home—to turn theories about how Jupiter works inside out. Among the early findings: Jupiter’s poles are covered in Earth-sized swirling storms that are densely clustered and rubbing together. Jupiter’s iconic belts and zones were surprising, with the belt near the equator penetrating far beneath the clouds, and the belts and zones at other latitudes seeming to evolve to other structures below the surface.

4. The Ultimate Classroom

The Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) project, a collaboration among NASA, JPL and the Lewis Center for Educational Research, lets students do real science with a large radio telescope. GAVRT data includes Jupiter observations relevant to Juno, and Juno scientists collaborate with the students and their teachers.

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5. Spotting the Spot

Measuring in at 10,159 miles (16,350 kilometers) in width (as of April 3, 2017) Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is 1.3 times as wide as Earth. The storm has been monitored since 1830 and has possibly existed for more than 350 years. In modern times, the Great Red Spot has appeared to be shrinking. In July 2017, Juno passed directly over the spot, and JunoCam images revealed a tangle of dark, veinous clouds weaving their way through a massive crimson oval.

“For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now we have the best pictures ever of this iconic storm. It will take us some time to analyze all the data from not only JunoCam, but Juno’s eight science instruments, to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot.”

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6. Beauty Runs Deep

Data collected by the Juno spacecraft during its first pass over Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in July 2017 indicate that this iconic feature penetrates well below the clouds. The solar system’s most famous storm appears to have roots that penetrate about 200 miles (300 kilometers) into the planet’s atmosphere.

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7. Powerful Auroras, Powerful Mysteries

Scientists on the Juno mission observed massive amounts of energy swirling over Jupiter’s polar regions that contribute to the giant planet’s powerful auroras – only not in ways the researchers expected. Examining data collected by the ultraviolet spectrograph and energetic-particle detector instruments aboard Juno, scientists observed signatures of powerful electric potentials, aligned with Jupiter’s magnetic field, that accelerate electrons toward the Jovian atmosphere at energies up to 400,000 electron volts. This is 10 to 30 times higher than the largest such auroral potentials observed at Earth. 

Jupiter has the most powerful auroras in the solar system, so the team was not surprised that electric potentials play a role in their generation. What puzzled the researchers is that despite the magnitudes of these potentials at Jupiter, they are observed only sometimes and are not the source of the most intense auroras, as they are at Earth.

8. Heat from Within

Juno scientists shared a 3D infrared movie depicting densely packed cyclones and anticyclones that permeate the planet’s polar regions, and the first detailed view of a dynamo, or engine, powering the magnetic field for any planet beyond Earth (video above). Juno mission scientists took data collected by the spacecraft’s Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument and generated a 3D fly-around of the Jovian world’s north pole. 

Imaging in the infrared part of the spectrum, JIRAM captures light emerging from deep inside Jupiter equally well, night or day. The instrument probes the weather layer down to 30 to 45 miles (50 to 70 kilometers) below Jupiter’s cloud tops.

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9. A Highly Charged Atmosphere

Powerful bolts of lightning light up Jupiter’s clouds. In some ways its lightning is just like what we’re used to on Earth. In other ways,it’s very different. For example, most of Earth’s lightning strikes near the equator; on Jupiter, it’s mostly around the poles.

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10. Extra Innings

In June, we approved an update to Juno’s science operations until July 2021. This provides for an additional 41 months in orbit around. Juno is in 53-day orbits rather than 14-day orbits as initially planned because of a concern about valves on the spacecraft’s fuel system. This longer orbit means that it will take more time to collect the needed science data, but an independent panel of experts confirmed that Juno is on track to achieve its science objectives and is already returning spectacular results. The spacecraft and all its instruments are healthy and operating nominally. ​

Read the full web version of this week’s ‘Solar System: 10 Things to Know’ article HERE

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What’s Up? – May 2018

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What’s Up For May?

The Moon and Saturn meet Mars in the morning as our InSight spacecraft launches to the Red Planet on May 5!

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You won’t want to miss red Mars in the southern morning skies this month.

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InSight, our first mission to explore Mars’ deep interior, launches on May 5th with a launch window that begins at 4:05 a.m. PDT and lasts for two hours.

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Some lucky viewers in central and southern California and even parts of the Mexican Pacific coast will get a chance to see the spacecraft launch with their unaided eyes AND its destination, Mars, at the same time.

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Mars shines a little brighter than last month, as it approaches opposition on July 27th. That’s when Mars and the Sun will be on opposite sides of the Earth. This will be Mars’ closest approach to Earth since 2003! 

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Compare the planet’s increases in brightness with your own eyes between now and July 27th. 

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The Eta Aquarid meteor shower will be washed out by the Moon this month, but if you are awake for the InSight launch anyway, have a look. This shower is better viewed from the southern hemisphere, but medium rates of 10 to 30 meteors per hour MAY be seen before dawn.

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Of course, you could travel to the South Pacific to see the shower at its best!

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There’s no sharp peak to this shower–just several nights with good rates, centered on May 6th. 

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Jupiter reaches opposition on May 9th, heralding the best Jupiter-observing season, especially for mid-evening viewing. That’s because the king of the planets rises at sunset and sets at dawn. 

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Wait a few hours after sunset, when Jupiter is higher in the sky, for the best views. If you viewed Jupiter last month, expect the view to be even better this month!

Watch the full What’s Up for May Video: 

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This makes me think of Dali or Van Gogh. I’ll …

This makes me think of Dali or Van Gogh. I’ll take Jupiter anytime.

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What’s Up – April 2018

What’s Up For April? 

The Moon, Mars and Saturn and the Lyrid meteor shower!

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The Moon, Mars and Saturn

The Moon, Mars and Saturn form a pretty triangle in early April, the Lyrid Meteors are visible in late April, peaking high overhead on the 22nd.

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You won’t want to miss red Mars and golden Saturn in the south-southeast morning skies this month. Mars shines a little brighter than last month.

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By the 7th, the Moon joins the pair. From a dark sky you may see some glow from the nearby Milky Way.

Lyrid Meteors

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Midmonth, start looking for Lyrid meteors, which are active from April 14 through the 30th. They peak on the 22nd.

The Lyrids are one of the oldest known meteor showers and have been observed for 2,700 years. The first recorded sighting of a Lyrid meteor shower goes back to 687 BC by the Chinese. The pieces of space debris that interact with our atmosphere to create the Lyrids originate from comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. Comet Thatcher was discovered on 5 April 1861 by A. E. Thatcher.

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In the early morning sky, a patient observer will see up to more than a dozen meteors per hour in this medium-strength shower, with 18 meteors per hour calculated for the peak. U.S. observers should see good rates on the nights before and after this peak.

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A bright first quarter moon plays havoc with sky conditions, marring most of the typically faint Lyrid meteors. But Lyra will be high overhead after the moon sets at midnight, so that’s the best time to look for Lyrids.

Jupiter & Juno

Jupiter will also be visible in the night sky this month! 

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Through a telescope, Jupiter’s clouds belts and zones are easy to see. 

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And watch the Great Red Spot transit–or cross–the visible (Earth-facing) disk of Jupiter every 8 hours.

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Our Juno spacecraft continues to orbit this gas giant, too!

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And Juno’s JunoCam citizen science team is creating exciting images of Jupiter’s features based on the latest spacecraft data.

Next month Jupiter is at opposition–when it rises at sunset, sets at sunrise, and offers great views for several months!

Watch the full What’s Up for April Video: 

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Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Getting Taller as it …

Discover how a team of our scientists has uncovered evidence that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is growing taller as it gets smaller.

Though once big enough to swallow three Earths with room to spare, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot has been shrinking for a century and a half. Nobody is sure how long the storm will continue to contract or whether it will disappear altogether.

A new study suggests that it hasn’t all been downhill, though. The storm seems to have increased in area at least once along the way, and it’s growing taller as it gets smaller.

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Observations of Jupiter date back centuries, but the first confirmed sighting of the Great Red Spot was in 1831. But until then, researchers aren’t certain whether earlier observers who saw a red spot on Jupiter were looking at the same storm.

Amy Simon, an expert in planetary atmospheres at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and her team traced the evolution of the Great Red Spot, analyzing its size, shape, color  and drift rate. They also looked at the storm’s internal wind speeds, when that information was available from spacecraft.

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This new study confirms that the storm has been decreasing in diameter overall since 1878 and is now big enough to accommodate just over one Earth at this point. Then again, the historical record indicates the area of the spot grew temporarily in the 1920s. Scientists aren’t sure why it grew for a bit.

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Because the storm has been contracting, the researchers expected to find the already-powerful internal winds becoming even stronger, like an ice skater who spins faster as she pulls in her arms.

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But that’s not what is happening. Instead of spinning faster, the storm appears to be forced to stretch up. It’s almost like clay being shaped on a potter’s wheel. As the wheel spins, an artist can transform a short, round lump into a tall, thin vase by pushing inward with his hands. The smaller he makes the base, the taller the vessel will grow.

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The Great Red Spot’s color has been deepening, too, becoming is a more intense orange color since 2014. Researchers aren’t sure why that’s happening, but it’s possible that the chemicals coloring the storm are being carried higher into the atmosphere as the spot stretches up. At higher altitudes, the chemicals would be subjected to more UV radiation and would take on a deeper color.

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In some ways, the mystery of the Great Red Spot only seems to deepen as the iconic storm gets smaller. Researchers don’t know whether the spot will shrink a bit more and then stabilize, or break apart completely.

For more information, go here/watch this:

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With unearthly jet-streams, many massive swirl…

With unearthly jet-streams, many massive swirling cyclones and winds running deep into its atmosphere — new data from our Juno Mission to Jupiter unveils discoveries and clues about the gas-giant planet. 

This composite image, derived from data collected by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument aboard our Juno spacecraft, shows the central cyclone at the planet’s north pole and the eight cyclones that encircle it.

However, as tightly spaced as the cyclones are, they have remained distinct, with individual morphologies over the seven months of observations. The question is, why do they not merge? We are beginning to realize that not all gas giants are created equal.

Read more about these discoveries HERE

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What’s Up – March 2018

What’s Up For March?

Several Planets and the Zodiacal Light!

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This month, at sunset, catch elusive Mercury, bright Venus, the Zodiacal Light, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter between midnight and dawn!

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Both Venus and Mercury play the part of “evening stars” this month. At the beginning of the month they appear low on the western horizon.

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The Moon itself joins the pair from March 18th through the 20th. 

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The Moon skims by the Pleiades star cluster and Taurus’s bright red star Aldebaran on the next few evenings, March 21 through the 23rd.

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Jupiter, king of the planets, rises just before midnight this month and earlier by month end. 

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Even through the smallest telescope or average binoculars, you should see the 4 Galilean moons, Europa, Io, Callisto and Ganymede.

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The March morning sky offers dazzling views of Mars and Saturn all month long.

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Through a telescope, you can almost make out some of the surface features on Mars.

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Look a little farther into Mars’ future and circle May 5th with a red marker. When our InSight spacecraft launches for its 6 month journey to the Red Planet, Mars will be easily visible to your unaided eye. 

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Keep watching Mars as it travels closer to Earth. It will be closest in late July, when the red planet will appear larger in apparent diameter than it has since 2003!

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You are in for a real treat if you can get away to a dark sky location on a moonless night this month – the Zodiacal Light and the Milky Way intersect! 

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The Zodiacal light is a faint triangular glow seen from a dark sky just after sunset in the spring or just before sunrise in the fall.

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The more familiar Milky Way is one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. 

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What we’re seeing is sunlight reflecting off dust grains that circle the Sun in the inner solar system. These dust grains journey across our sky in the ecliptic, the same plane as the Moon and the planets.

Watch the full What’s Up for March Video: 

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