Hubble’s Stunning Grand Tour of the Outer Solar System

Hubble Grand Tour

Credit: NASA, ESA, Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC), Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley). Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Stunning Yearly Observations Reveal Changes to Gas Giants’ Atmospheres

In Greek mythology, a race of giants, called the Titans, first ruled the world. The ancient Titans of the solar system are the outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, huddling close to the warm Sun, are pebbles by comparison. Stretching from 500 million to 3 billion miles from the Sun, these monsters are as remote as they are mysterious, dwelling so far from the Sun that water instantly freezes to solid ice. These so-called gas giants all have deep swirling atmospheres made up mostly of primordial elements. They do not have solid surfaces.

In the 1970s and 1980s, NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11, and Voyager 1 and 2, first made the long-distance trek to the outer solar system. They gave humankind dazzling close-up photos of these remarkably complex worlds. In the 1990s along came the Hubble Space Telescope to pick up where these interplanetary pathfinders left off. Annually, Hubble monitors changes in the colorful swirling atmosphere of Jupiter, seasonal storms coming and going on Saturn and Uranus, and a wandering dark spot that plays peek-a-boo on Neptune. As the solar system’s weatherman, Hubble’s ultra-sharp monitoring of these magnificent giants keeps giving astronomers insights into an ever-changing kaleidoscope of weather on other worlds.

From its vantage point high above Earth’s atmosphere, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has completed this year’s grand tour of the outer solar system – returning crisp images that complement current and past observations from interplanetary spacecraft. This is the realm of the giant planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – extending as far as 30 times the distance between Earth and the Sun.

Unlike the rocky terrestrial planets like Earth and Mars that huddle close to the Sun’s warmth, these far-flung worlds are mostly composed of chilly gaseous soups of hydrogen, helium, ammonia, methane, and deep water around a packed, intensely hot, compact core.

Though robotic spacecraft have sent back snapshots of their visits to these four enormous planets over the past 50 years, their swirling, colorful atmospheres are constantly changing. While robotic spacecraft that fly close to the planets can take sharper images, Hubble frequently revisits these distant worlds to reveal new surprises, offering fresh insights into their wild weather, driven by still largely unknown dynamic forces working under the cloud tops.

OPAL Grand Tour

From its vantage point high above Earth’s atmosphere, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has completed this year’s grand tour of the outer solar system – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — returning crisp images that complement current and past observations from interplanetary spacecraft. Credit: NASA, ESA, Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC), Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley). Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Hubble’s snapshots of the outer planets reveal both extreme and subtle changes rapidly taking place in these distant worlds. Hubble’s sharp view gleans insights into the fascinating, dynamic weather patterns and seasons on these gas giants and allows astronomers to investigate the very similar – and very different – causes of their changing atmospheres.

These Hubble images are part of yearly maps of each planet taken as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy program, or OPAL. The program provides annual, global views of the outer planets to look for changes in their storms, winds, and clouds. Hubble’s longevity, and unique vantage point, has given astronomers a unique chance to check in on the outer planets on a yearly basis. Knowledge from the OPAL program can also be extended far beyond our own solar system in the study of atmospheres of planets that orbit stars other than our Sun.

Hubble Jupiter 2021

Hubble’s 2021 images of Jupiter track the ever-changing landscape of its turbulent atmosphere, where several new storms are making their mark. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (NASA-GSFC), and M. H. Wong (UC Berkeley); Image Processing: J. DePasquale (STScI)

Jupiter

This year’s Hubble images of Jupiter track the ever-changing landscape of its turbulent atmosphere, where several new storms are making their mark, and the pace of color changes near the planet’s equator is continuing to surprise researchers.

Hubble’s September 4th photo puts the giant planet’s tumultuous atmosphere on full display.

The planet’s equatorial zone has remained a deep orange hue for a much longer time, compared to previous darkening episodes. While the equator has changed from its traditional white or beige appearance for a few years now, scientists were surprised to find the deeper orange color to persist in Hubble’s recent imaging, instead expecting the zone to lose its reddish haze layer.

Just above the equator, researchers note the appearance of several new storms, nicknamed “barges” during the Voyager era. These elongated red cells can be defined as cyclonic vortexes, which vary in appearance. While some of the storms are sharply defined and clear, others are fuzzy and hazy. This difference in appearance is caused by the properties within the clouds of the vortexes.

“Every time we get new data down, the image quality and detail in the cloud features always blow me away,” said Amy Simon of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It strikes me when I look at Jupiter, in the barges or in the red band right below, you can see cloud structures that are clearly much deeper. We’re seeing a lot of structure here and vertical depth variation.”

Researchers also note that a feature dubbed “Red Spot Jr.” (Oval BA), below the Great Red Spot, where Hubble just discovered winds are speeding up, is still a darker beige color, and is joined by a string of white, anticyclonic storms to the south.

Hubble Saturn 2021

Hubble’s 2021 look at Saturn shows rapid and extreme color changes in the bands of the planet’s northern hemisphere. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (NASA-GSFC), and M. H. Wong (UC Berkeley); Image Processing: A. Pagan (STScI)

Saturn

Hubble’s new look at Saturn on September 12th shows rapid and extreme color changes of the bands in the planet’s northern hemisphere, where it is now early autumn. The bands have varied throughout Hubble observations in both 2019 and 2020. Notably, Saturn’s iconic hexagonal storm, first discovered in 1981 by the Voyager 2 spacecraft, was difficult to distinguish in 2020, but it is again clearly evident in 2021. Hubble’s Saturn image catches the planet following the southern hemisphere’s winter, evident in the lingering blue-ish hue of the south pole. In the past, Hubble has allowed researchers to closely track the northern hemisphere’s seasonal changes.

“This is something we can best do with Hubble. With Hubble’s high resolution, we can narrow things down to which band is actually changing,” said Michael Wong of the University of California, Berkeley. “If you were to look at this through a ground-based telescope, there’s some blurring with our atmosphere, and you’ll lose some of those color variations. Nothing from the ground will get visible-light images as sharp as Hubble’s.”

Hubble Uranus 2021

Hubble’s 2021 view of Uranus imaged the planet’s northern hemisphere during its springtime. The increase in ultraviolet radiation absorbed from the Sun seems to be causing the polar region to brighten. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (NASA-GSFC), and M. H. Wong (UC Berkeley); Image Processing: A. Pagan (STScI)

Uranus

Hubble’s October 25th view of Uranus puts the planet’s bright northern polar hood in the spotlight. It’s springtime in the northern hemisphere and the increase in ultraviolet radiation absorbed from the Sun seems to be causing the polar region to brighten. Researchers are studying how the brightening polar hood results from changes in the concentration of atmospheric methane gas and the characteristics of haze particles, as well as the atmospheric flow patterns. Curiously, even as the atmospheric hood gets brighter, the sharp southernmost boundary remains fixed at the same latitude. This has been constant over the past several years of OPAL observations, perhaps because a jet stream is setting up a barrier at that latitude of 43 degrees.

Hubble Neptune 2021

Hubble’s 2021 look at Neptune, found that a new, “dark spot,” storm discovered in 2018 has reversed direction and is moving north. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (NASA-GSFC), and M. H. Wong (UC Berkeley); Image Processing: A. Pagan (STScI)

Neptune

In observations taken on September 7th, researchers found that Neptune’s dark spot, which recently was found to have reversed course from moving toward the equator, is still visible in this image, along with a darkened northern hemisphere. There is also a notable dark, elongated circle encompassing Neptune’s south pole. Neptune’s and Uranus’ blue color is a result of the absorption of red light by the planets’ methane-rich atmosphere, combined with the same Rayleigh-scattering process that makes the Earth’s sky blue. In 2021, there are few bright clouds on Neptune, and its distinct blue with a singular large dark spot is very reminiscent of what Voyager 2 saw in 1989.

Hubble Grand Tour 2021

From its vantage point high above Earth’s atmosphere, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has completed this year’s grand tour of the outer solar system – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — returning crisp images that complement current and past observations from interplanetary spacecraft. Credit: NASA, ESA, Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC), Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley). Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

5 Comments on "Hubble’s Stunning Grand Tour of the Outer Solar System"

  1. Babu G. Ranganathan | November 19, 2021 at 7:40 am | Reply

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    JUST BECAUSE SCIENCE CAN EXPLAIN how an airplane works doesn’t mean that no one designed or made the airplane. And just because science can explain how life or the universe works doesn’t mean there was no Designer and Maker behind them.

    Natural laws may explain how the order in the universe works and operates, but mere undirected natural laws cannot explain the origin of that order. Once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells from raw materials such as amino acids and other chemicals, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

    WHAT IS SCIENCE? Science simply is knowledge based on observation. No human observed the universe coming by chance or by design, by creation or by evolution. These are positions of faith. The issue is which faith the scientific evidence best supports.

    SCIENCE SHOWS THAT THE UNIVERSE CANNOT BE ETERNAL because it could not have sustained itself eternally due to the law of entropy (increasing and irreversible net energy decay, even in an open system). Even a hypothetical oscillating universe could not continue to oscillate eternally! Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity shows that space, matter, and time all are physical and all had a beginning. Space even produces particles because it’s actually something, not nothing. What about the Higgs boson (the so-called “God Particle”)? The Higgs boson, even if it existed, would not have created mass from nothing, but rather it would have converted energy into mass. Einstein showed that all matter is some form of energy. Even time had a beginning! Time is not eternal.

    The law of entropy doesn’t allow the universe to be eternal. If the universe were eternal, everything, including time (which modern science has shown is as physical as mass and space), would have become totally entropied by now and the entire universe would have ended in a uniform heat death a long, long time ago. The fact that this hasn’t happened already is powerful evidence for a beginning to the universe.

    Popular atheistic scientist Stephen Hawking admits that the universe had a beginning and came from nothing but he believes that nothing became something by a natural process yet to be discovered. That’s not rational thinking at all, and it also would be making the effect greater than its cause to say that nothing created something. The beginning had to be of supernatural origin because science teaches us from the First Law of Thermodynamics that natural laws and processes do not have the ability to bring something into existence from nothing.

    The supernatural origin of the universe cannot be proved by science but science points to a supernatural intelligence and power for the origin and order of the universe. Where did God come from? Obviously, unlike the universe, God’s nature doesn’t require a beginning.

    The disorder in the universe can be explained because of chance and random processes, but the order can be explained only because of intelligence and design.

    Gravity may explain how the order found in the precise and orderly courses of thousands of billions of stars is maintained, but gravity cannot explain the origin of that order.

    Some evolutionary astronomers believe that trillions of stars crashed into each other leaving surviving stars to find precise orderly orbits in space. Not only is this irrational, but if there was such a mass collision of stars then there would be a super mass residue of gas clouds in space to support this hypothesis. The present level of residue of gas clouds in space doesn’t support the magnitude of star deaths required for such a hypothesis. And, as already stated, the origin of stars cannot be explained by the Big Bang because of the reasons mentioned above. It’s one thing to say that stars may decay and die into random gas clouds, but it is totally different to say that gas clouds form into stars.

    Even the father of Chaos theory admitted that the “mechanisms” existing in the non-living world allow for only very rudimentary levels of order to arise spontaneously (by chance), but not the kind or level of order we find in the structures of DNA, RNA, and proteins. Yes, individual amino acids have been shown to come into existence by chance but not protein molecules which require that the various amino acids be in a precise sequence just like the letters found in a sentence.

    Some things don’t need experiment or scientific proof. In law there is a dictum called prima facie evidence. It means “evidence that speaks for itself.”

    An example of a true prima facie would be if you discovered an elaborate sand castle on the beach. You don’t have to experiment to know that it came by design and not by the chance forces of wind and water.

    If you discovered a romantic letter or message written in the sand, you don’t have to experiment to know that it was by design and not because a stick randomly carried by wind put it there. You naturally assume that an intelligent and rational being was responsible.

    It’s interesting that Carl Sagan would have acknowledged sequential radio signals in space as evidence of intelligent life sending them, but he wouldn’t acknowledge the sequential structure of molecules in DNA (the genetic code) as evidence of an intelligent Cause. Read my popular Internet article, HOW DID MY DNA MAKE ME.

    I encourage all to read my popular Internet articles:

    NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION
    HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

    Visit my latest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION (This site answers many arguments, both old and new, that have been used by evolutionists to support their theory)

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

    • Imagine that, a god of the gaps argument. Well just because you can’t prove that Santa Claus made existence, doesn’t mean that he didn’t.

  2. Heather Robinson | November 19, 2021 at 8:15 am | Reply

    That doesn’t mean there is! Why make stuff up. Just learn about science and life. No more manmade gods!!!

  3. Your writer knows a lot more about the solar system and the Hubble telescope than about Roman mythology. Only Saturn (Greek Kronos aka Cronus) was a titan. Jupiter (Zeus) and Neptune (Poseidon) were gods, and Ouranos (later Uranus) was the Greek name of one of the primal forces, son and husband of Gaia or Gaea. She is variously considered the first (or one of the first) of the primordial deities. Their children were the Titans, and the first of them, Saturn (Kronos) was the father of the gods of Olympus whose names were given to the rest of the planets except Earth (Germanic).

  4. Idk therefore jesus…

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