Red, Swirling and Perplexing

Astrophysicist Amy A. Simon-Miller said scientists don't know why Jupiter's new storm turned red last year.
Astrophysicist Amy A. Simon-Miller said scientists don't know why Jupiter's new storm turned red last year. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006

If you think we have crazy weather, consider this storm:

It's about 7,000 miles across, with winds topping 500 mph and clouds that have recently turned red.

It's a mega-hurricane, sort of.

It has a weird, pale center and rotation. And it looks as if it has been gaining strength.

It has been given a name: Oval BA. But it won't be making landfall. Ever. Because on Jupiter, where this storm is raging, there is no land.

Maryland astrophysicist Amy A. Simon-Miller of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt has been eyeing Oval BA for months, along with excited Jupiter-watchers around the world.

In the spring, they got the managers of the Hubble Space Telescope to focus on the storm, and the Laurel-based operators of a satellite bound for Pluto plan to aim its onboard digital camera-telescope at Jupiter as the spacecraft hurtles past the planet early next year.

The images from a satellite called New Horizons -- being managed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory -- should be 10 times better than Hubble's, Simon-Miller said. "We're going to get some pretty spectacular data . . . just because it's going to be such high resolution."

Jupiter, which has no real surface, is known for having some of the worst weather in the solar system. It also has certain cycles that Simon-Miller says are similar to Earth's and might hold clues to weather and climate change here.

But most days, Jupiter's forecast is nothing like ours.

The normal wind velocity is 200 to 300 mph, with no letup, Simon-Miller said. "Unlike here, where the winds change from day to day, [on Jupiter] they're pretty much the same every day," she said. "Compared to Earth, it's a much windier day pretty much everywhere."

The planet's legendary swirling overcast looks like something painted by Vincent Van Gogh. And Jupiter already boasts the so-called Great Red Spot, an even bigger storm that's been raging for centuries.

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