Emily LakdawallaMar 12, 2013

Checking in on Jupiter

When I'm looking for current pictures of Jupiter, there are three names that come to mind: Damian Peach, Anthony Wesley, and Christopher Go. These three amateurs specialize in photographing the planets. Together with lots of other amateurs they are building an invaluable record of Jupiter's changing face. The telescopes and equipment that they use for planet imaging are obviously of high quality but they are not outlandishly large -- Peach, Wesley, and Go are all using 14-inch (35-cm) telescopes (give or take a few cm) for their imaging. Their hobbies cost them roughly the same amount of money that other people might spend on a motorcycle or speedboat. Yet they are exploring the planets, and providing ongoing, night-after-night coverage that no professional can match. Here's what Jupiter looked like, a couple of months ago, near its opposition:

Jupiter on December 27, 2012
Jupiter on December 27, 2012 Damian Peach took this photo of Jupiter a few weeks after opposition from Selsey, in the United Kingdom.Image: Damian Peach

I spent a pleasurable day yesterday trawling Damian Peach's Jupiter photo archives. Here's a look at Jupiter from each of its last four oppositions. I picked two photos from each of the 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 oppositions, showing approximately opposite faces of Jupiter. Astonishingly, many of these photos were taken from his home in Selsey, West Sussex, in the United Kingdom, a country not known for having regularly cloudless skies (though Peach says that this town, which is on a promontory on the southern coast of England, enjoys clearer skies than typical UK locations). Peach also regularly visits an observing site in Barbados, which must be nice!

Jupiter's changing face, 2009-2012
Jupiter's changing face, 2009-2012 All of these photos were taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Each row represents one year; the two photos show approximately opposing hemispheres of Jupiter. Top row: September 10 and 7, 2009, from Barbados; second row: September 12 and 15, 2010, from Barbados; third row: October 1 and December 27, 2011, from Selsey; bottom row: December 27 and November 21, 2012, from Selsey.Image: Damian Peach; montage by Emily Lakdawalla

The changes from year to year are just fascinating. I've written before about the disappearance and reappearance of Jupiter's South Equatorial Belt, which is probably the most obvious of the time-varying features visible here. But there is so much more to see. Look at the region to the left of the Great Red Spot. Is it turbulent like when Cassini passed by, or smooth like when New Horizons passed by? Look at the color and banding within the Red Spot. Look, too, at the color of the Little Red Spot (also known as Oval BA). In 2009 and 2012 you can see that there's actually another Red Spot in Jupiter's northern hemisphere, a bit smaller than Oval BA. Check a red belt in any location in one year and see how different it appears in other years. The variety in the appearance of the northern hemisphere from year to year is fascinating.

For a bit more historical perspective, compare the views above to these six global views from the Pioneers, Voyagers, Cassini, and New Horizons:

Six spacecraft views of Jupiter
Six spacecraft views of Jupiter A total of seven spacecraft have visited Jupiter to date, and six of them returned global images.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab / Southwest Research Institute / Björn Jónsson

I am glad there are amateur astronomers keeping an eye on Jupiter!

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