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Moon and Jupiter

March 2, 2015

Most of astronomy is strictly “hands-off.” Astronomers can look at the objects they’re studying, but they can’t touch them. Sometimes, though, they can simulate those objects in the lab. That helps them better understand what they see with telescopes and spacecraft.

An example is a recent study of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot — a storm that’s wide enough to swallow Earth.

Scientists have pieced together a pretty good picture of the Great Red Spot. They’ve mapped its clouds and winds and taken its temperature. Yet they’re still not sure why it’s red. The color could come from compounds pulled up from deep inside Jupiter, or from interactions between Jupiter and the Sun.

A team of scientists recently conducted laboratory simulations of conditions at the top of the Great Red Spot. The scientists zapped compounds found in Jupiter’s atmosphere with ultraviolet radiation, like that produced by the Sun. The UV caused two of those compounds — ammonia and acetylene — to turn red.

The researchers also looked at observations that show that the red is found only at the top of the Red Spot, which towers much higher than the surrounding clouds. That suggests that the Great Red Spot gets its color from interactions between Jupiter and the Sun — a “hands-on” discovery about the solar system’s biggest planet.

And Jupiter is putting in a big appearance tonight. It’s close to the upper left of the Moon at nightfall, and looks like a brilliant star.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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