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Hunting The Great Red Spot

February 27, 2009 on 4:47 pm | In Solar System | 23 Comments

I’ve been interested in the planet Jupiter ever since I was told, as a little boy, that it was the place I needed to go. Although, come to think of it, I was lumped in with all boys, and told that we “go to Jupiter to get more stupider,” which isn’t a very good reason, in hindsight. Jupiter is one of the brightest objects in the entire night sky, beaten only by the Moon and Venus, and occasionally by Mars.

The above photo is of the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter on a slightly cloudy night. Sure, the Moon and Venus are brighter. But they’re also way closer than Jupiter is. It’s sheer coincidence that it’s named after the ruler of the Roman Pantheon and also happens to be the largest planet in our Solar System. But it is huge; if you wanted to compare Jupiter to Earth, Jupiter doesn’t just have us beat, it makes us look like an insignificant moon in comparison:

And once you get past its giant size, you start noticing other things about Jupiter, such as the different bands of moving air at different latitudes. But what I’ve always been fascinated by is that huge birthmark on its face: the great red spot, bigger than Earth in its own right.

And even though this animation that I’ve placed below is 30 years old, it’s still the best thing I know of to illustrate what Jupiter actually does; take a good look!

Unlike Earth, where the weather is transient, and even the greatest storms only last a few weeks, Jupiter is practically all weather. That great red spot is totally obvious, even without the red. This counterclockwise hurricane is about 2-3 times the size of Earth, and has been a fixture on Jupiter’s surface for as long as we’ve been able to see Jupiter’s surface features: more than 300 years!

So how impressive is this great red spot? Some impressive facts:

  • Width — anywhere from 24,000 km to 40,000 km
  • Height — anywhere from 12,000 km to 14,000 km
  • Time to rotate — 6 Earth days
  • Maximum Wind Speed — 250 miles per hour (400 km / hour)

But what’s the big news? See that big variety in width above? It turns out that Jupiter’s great red spot is shrinking! In fact, the great red spot, right now, is smaller than it’s ever been. We don’t think it’s going to disappear or dissipate, but it’s definitely shrinking right now. It’s possible that this is just a fluctuation, and the system is stable, like this animation of Hurricane Isabel on Earth.

But it’s also possible that if you’d like to see the great red spot, you’re best off doing it sooner rather than later! Remember, Jupiter rotates quickly (in under 10 hours), so you have to get lucky to have the great red spot facing you. You can see great details on Jupiter with just a 10″ telescope, but if you don’t plan ahead, the great red spot will be on the other side of the planet:

My advice? Use this handy calculator. And the great red spot isn’t just for professionals; here are six pictures of Jupiter, with the great red spot visible, taken by the amateurs Damian Peach, Christopher Go, and Anthony Wesley:

Remember, Jupiter has phases (as seen from Earth) too, so try to catch it when Jupiter is “full”! So, hopefully this shrinkage of the great red spot is just temporary, but my advice is to get out and have a look while you still can! Happy hunting!


How does Hydrogen dust block light?

February 25, 2009 on 3:21 pm | In Astronomy, cosmology | 18 Comments

I wrote an article last week where I talked about our Universe when it was younger, and discussed that you can’t see too far back because it’s too dusty. In the same way that a fog obscures distant objects, I said, this neutral hydrogen will obscure distant galaxies, and so we have a very hard time figuring out how to see astronomical objects beyond a certain distance.

Well, our reader Richard is way too clever to just believe what I have to say. He took a look at what neutral hydrogen actually does in terms of absorbing visible light, and looked at this image I posted:

And perhaps you’ll notice the same thing that he did: the amount of light that gets absorbed is tiny compared to the total amount of light! So what he wants to know is really reasonable (and I’m paraphrasing here):

How does neutral hydrogen, which only absorbs very select frequencies of light, block out all of the light coming from distant stars and galaxies?

Well, there are three major effects that allow hydrogen to absorb pretty much all the light you were going to see, and if you want a really technical explanation, I recommend you go here. Let’s go through all three of them, remembering that hydrogen will only make these tiny absorption lines if we didn’t have these three effects:

1. Hydrogen gas moves. Because atoms don’t stay still, they move. The atoms that move towards the light absorb a slightly lower frequency of light, the ones that move away from it absorb a slightly higher frequency. From a distance, the gas looks stationary, but in reality there’s always plenty of it moving both towards and away from a given object:

This is important, because it causes these “narrow absorption lines” to broaden. The faster the gas moves, the broader the lines get. So for gas that moves very quickly, a tiny absorption line can kill a huge amount of the spectrum:

2. The neutral gas absorbs the light along the entire journey. Astronomers often measure how far away things are by their redshift, meaning that the Universe is expanding, we know its expansion rate, and so if you measure how fast something is moving away from you, you know how far away it is. This is incredibly useful. But it also changes the frequencies that get absorbed. As the light travels to you, hydrogen gas in different places absorb light, but then the light gets redshifted:

So if I’ve got hydrogen gas at three different spots along the light’s journey to my eye, it’s going to make three different sets of absorption lines:

The combination of these first two effects, broad absorption lines happening at many different redshifts, is enough to render these distant galaxies invisible. But there’s a third effect that we see, too, that could also play a role.

3. Gas also scatters light. In addition to absorption, neutral gas is very good at scattering light. You’re probably used to seeing clouds do it in our atmosphere:

But plain old neutral gas can scatter light in space the same way! And just like clouds, they obscure everything behind them. Take a look at this galaxy, with a huge cloud of neutral gas (mostly hydrogen) in between us and them:

Fabulous! I mean, really, this is science in action! And so the next time someone wants to know how something as simple as hydrogen gas can block out anything in the Universe, you’ve got not just one, but three reasons to hit them with!


When The Oceans Boil…

February 23, 2009 on 12:19 pm | In Solar System | 8 Comments

The Earth and the Sun. So inextricably linked, with both of them being so necessary for the life we observe today. We live in a fortuitous, wet world, in just the right spot for liquid water to thrive.

And we’ve been in just the right spot for over four billion years. But time is running out. Why? Because the same thing that happens to all stars is happening to our Sun: as it starts to run out of fuel, it burns hotter and faster!

As the Sun burns its nuclear fuel, the core accumulates more and more helium, and the rate of hydrogen fusion increases. What does all of this mean? As the Sun gets older, it puts out more and more energy. Over the past 4.5 billion years, this has “only” increased the output from the Sun by about 20%, but that’s an awful lot. Things are going to get worse relatively quickly. Over the next (roughly) 1 billion years, the Sun’s output will increase by about another 10%. After 1 or 2 billion years more, this will be hot enough that the oceans will boil.

This boiling of the oceans will be different from dumping lava in them — modern ocean boiling is temporary — but when the Sun heats up enough, our oceans will boil permanently. And when this happens, we’ll experience the ultimate in the greenhouse effect. How drastic will it be? Let’s figure out what effect boiling the oceans will have on our atmosphere:

The total mass of the atmosphere, right now, is about 5.1480 √ó 1018 kg, or about 10,000 kg per square meter (14.4 pounds per square inch) at the Earth’s surface. But the oceans are tremendous. Over 1000 times denser than air and extending down more than six miles at its deepest, oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface. Thanks to satellite surveys, we know how deep the oceans are everywhere:

The oceans have an average depth of 3,790 meters. And from this information, we can figure out that the total mass of the Earth’s oceans is about 1.4 √ó 1021 kg, or 272 times more massive than the entire current atmosphere. Once the oceans boil, the pressure from the Earth’s atmosphere will be nearly 4,000 pounds per square inch (280,000 kg per square meter), or certainly enough to not only kill you, but to turn our planet into an inferno hotter than Venus’ temperature of over 450 degrees Celsius!

And you can be sure that our planet won’t look so blue after this! So that’s what we have to look forward to: the ultimate greenhouse effect. And you thought global warming was bad now?


Weekend Diversion: Ballet Etiquette

February 22, 2009 on 12:46 pm | In Random Stuff | 19 Comments

Since the recession has hit, the performing arts have been really struggling to survive. I think that makes this one of the most important times to patronize the arts, if you have any interest at all in them. This includes theatre, symphony, and dance.

Well, last night was the premiere of a new performance at the Oregon Ballet Theatre, Christopher Stowell’s direction of Lambarena.

This was not only the company premiere of the show, but the second act was also the world premiere of a newly choreographed dance routine to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which was really fantastic.

The ballet is really a neat place to go, since you get to see dancers in legitimately peak physical condition performing extraordinarily intricate and precise moves with stunning grace. It’s wonderful not only to watch the individual performances and stories unfold, but also to marvel at the amazing technical skill required to make something so difficult look so effortless.

Everyone gets their own thing out of watching a performance like this, so I won’t bore you with my interpretation. I will, however, bore you by telling you what doesn’t belong at the ballet:

Your baby. I don’t care how quiet, well-behaved, or precious your child is. If your child is under three, do not bring it to the ballet. In fact, on the information sheet that comes with your tickets, it has the following four disclaimers:

  • No refunds
  • Programs subject to change
  • No children under 3 except at The Nutcracker
  • All attendees must have a ticket

We had about a 15 month old sitting in front of us at the ballet, and the best thing that happened for our enjoyment was when we told the mother to remove her child. And my darling wife was absolutely right: a ballet is no place for a baby.

“Seriously, WTF???”

So please, support your local, county, or state performing arts endeavors. But get a sitter.


When Our Universe was a Kid…

February 20, 2009 on 4:25 pm | In Astronomy, cosmology | 32 Comments

It’s hard to believe that the Universe is almost 14 billion years old. Seriously, do you realize how big of a number that is? If you would condense the entire history of the Universe into one calendar year, your lifetime would take up the last 0.2 seconds of December 31st, and that’s assuming you live to be 100!

Well, we kind of know what’s going on around us now, and thanks to powerful telescopes, we can see way back to what the Universe looked like back when it was much younger. The farthest galaxies in this picture, for instance, come from when the Universe was only 700 million years old or so:

In our calendar analogy, that’s looking back when the Universe was only about 5% of its current age, or January 19th-ish. Want to see farther back? Want to see the Universe on January 10th, or January 4th, or even earlier? Of course you do; I do too!

But we can’t. At least, not with normal light. And I fear that we’ll never be able to. You wanna know why? Let’s take a look at the Eagle Nebula for an explanation:

See how there are a bunch of stars, but that there are also these dusty-looking pillars obstructing our view of what’s behind them? That’s neutral hydrogen gas. When there’s just a little bit of neutral gas, like in our atmosphere, we can see through it, no problem. When there’s a lot of it, we can’t see through it. So if you look at Mars and Jupiter with a telescope, you can see the Martian surface, because the atmosphere is so thin, but you can’t see the surface of Jupiter, no matter what you do.

Well, for the last 13 billion years or so, the Universe has been practically devoid of neutral hydrogen; it’s all ionized because of all the intense energy from starlight and galaxies. But before all the stars formed, a lot of this hydrogen was a neutral gas, and blocks the light coming from behind it.

Even though each atom of hydrogen only absorbs a tiny amount of a very specific wavelength of the light, it has to pass through millions of light years of this gas to get to us. And this is too much for even the brightest of lights, and so we don’t know how to see earlier than January 19th in the Universe.

Or, in other words, the Universe has been mostly clear with tiny patches of clouds every day since January 19th, but before that, every day was foggy, and it took 19 days for the fog to clear.

So will we ever be able to do it? Will we ever be able to see what the Universe looked like through this fog of neutral hydrogen gas? Perhaps, but it will take a new technique, and I don’t know what that is. But now you know one of the toughest challenge for astronomers: to see into this fog, and learn what the Universe looked like when it was a toddler, an infant, and even a newborn.

And if this isn’t enough astronomy for you (is it ever, really?), check out the 91st Carnival of Space, highlighting 25 great space stories from this week! Happy Friday!


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