Tuesday, May 25, 2010


You've probably heard of the rings of Saturn, but you may not know about the rings of Jupiter.

One of them seems to be missing.

Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, a giant ball of gas and liquid about 500 million miles from the sun, usually shows off two dark, slightly reddish bands, or stripes -- one in the northern hemisphere, one in the southern.

The southern one has disappeared.

It was there last year, but when Jupiter came out from behind the sun on its yearly orbit, it was gone.

Before you short stocks and buy gold for the approaching apocalypse, relax. This happens occasionally, although nobody is sure why.

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"The last time it happened was 1973," said Eric Vandernoot, the Astronomy and Physics Lab coordinator at Florida Atlantic University. "This is why Jupiter is my favorite planet. It's a constantly changing system, and it's wonderful to watch. You can see the changes occur on any given night."

Vandernoot points out that next year, on March 17, Jupiter's orbit will come its closest to the sun, but he doesn't think that's why the band has disappeared.

The most likely reason? The cooling of gases on the planet's surface.

But that's just a guess, too.

Jupiter is not a solid mass, although it has a core that's about four times the size of Earth. Surrounding that is a thick sea of liquid metallic hydrogen and then a lot of gas, which is what we see.

The gases, which include sulphur and phosphorus, form the belts that are created by 350-mph winds fueled by Jupiter's rapid rotation. The belts, or stripes, are probably a function of the gases heating and cooling.

"We think it's a hurricane that's been lasting 350 years on the planet, and there's nothing to slow it down, like, say, tall buildings. Or Florida," Vandernoot said.

"Everybody oohs and aahs about Saturn and the rings. But in fact Saturn is so pale, you don't get to see much. But Jupiter, you can see the moons, you can see the shadow of the moons move over the planet. It's not a static picture in a textbook, it's real."

And if you can wait a few months, Jupiter will be closest to Earth on Sept. 24, which is when you'll get the best view of it.

Without one of its stripes.

~ scott_eyman@pbpost.com

So, don't live in fear of September 24th...Just be aware of it!

John Marchesella

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