Jupiter's Great Red Spot is a huge spinning mystery where a ferocious storm much larger than the diameter of Earth rages. New ultra high-definition images snapped by the Hubble Telescope have offered a fresh perspective on the Red (or is that Orange) Spot, as well as revealing other intriguing features on the gas giant.
The photos, which are the first in a series of yearly 4K portraits of our solar system's outer planets, show a rare wave just north of Jupiter's equator. The feature is described as "rare" as it has actually been spotted once before – decades ago by the Voyager 2 spacecraft – but not since. Rolling along at around 16 degrees north latitude, surrounded by cyclones and anticyclones, the scientists suspect the wave may originate in a clear layer underneath the cloud.
"Until now, we thought the wave seen by Voyager 2 might have been a fluke," says NASA's Glenn Orton. "As it turns out, it’s just rare!"
The images also show that the Great Red Spot is more orange than red at its core, and that it is shrinking and taking on more of a circular shape. The long axis is said to be 150 mi (240 km) shorter than it was in 2014, a reduction the scientists say is in line with the long-term trend. But the biggest surprise from the images is a never-seen-before filament, which twists and turns along almost the entire width of the vortex, thrust in various directions by winds blowing at 330 mph (531 km/h).
"Every time we look at Jupiter, we get tantalizing hints that something really exciting is going on," says Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. "This time is no exception."
The sharp new photos were captured using the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3, a high-performance instrument that has previously been used to gaze at massive star clusters and peer into the farthest reaches of the universe. As part of the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy program, the camera has now been pointed at Neptune and Uranus – images of which will also to be made available to the public.
NASA says that Saturn will be added to the series at a later date. Through these yearly planetary snapshots, the idea is to help scientists and students observe changes in these worlds over time by cataloguing alterations in various features such as winds, clouds and atmospheric chemistry.
The images have been arranged to form a 4K video of a spinning Jupiter, which can be viewed below.