Science Scoops (News!)

Late-Breaking News, Discoveries & More!
by Stephen James O’Meara

Jupiter’s “Red Spot Jr.”

If you think climate change on Earth is big, how about climate change on massive Jupiter! It’s popularly known that Jupiter has a Great Red Spot — a giant storm on Jupiter that has persisted for at least 400 years. Well, astronomers have recently discovered a new, little Red Spot, which, they say may be the result of a major climate change occurring in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Scoops Photo
Jupiter’s Red Spots

Known to some astronomers as “Red Spot Jr.,” the new spot is roughly half the size of its bigger and legendary cousin. Actually, the new red spot isn’t entirely new — just its color! Before it mysteriously changed to the same color as the Great Red Spot, the smaller spot was known as the White Oval BA. It formed after three white oval-shaped storms merged during 1998 to 2000. It is the first time in history that astronomers have witnessed the birth of a new red spot on the giant planet, which is located half a billion miles away.

Now NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is giving astronomers their most detailed view yet of this second red spot. The images show a level of detail comparable to that achieved by NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft as they flew by Jupiter a quarter-century ago.

Some astronomers think the white oval got its red hue as it rose higher in Jupiter’s atmosphere, dredging up material in the process. This new material could then have been chemically altered by the Sun’s ultraviolet light making the spot appear red. The new Hubble images may provide evidence that Jupiter is in the midst of a global climate change that will alter its average temperature at some latitudes by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wider Tropics? Shifting Sands?

Speaking about global climate change and changing temperatures, get this. According to the journal Science, satellite temperature readings of Earth’s atmosphere over the past 26 years indicate that the tropical zone may be getting wider. As a result, Earth’s storm-steering jet streams may be being shoved toward the poles.

The Tropics may have, in fact, already widened by about 140 miles. Such belt stretching could explain recent droughts and other unusually dry conditions in the American Southwest and Mediterranean Europe. But they said they couldn’t yet tell if the changes are being triggered by natural climate swings or by human activity contributing to global warming.

If the tropics are getting fatter and the jet streams are being pushed toward the poles, then Thomas Reichler, an assistant professor of meteorology at the University of Utah says that subtropical deserts may be expanding into heavily populated mid-latitude regions.

And John Wallace, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, warns that if the jet streams move another 2 to 3 degrees poleward in this century, we should expect reduced winter snows in regions such as southern Europe, including the Alps, and southern Australia.

Invisibility Cloak . . . for Real!

Cool! How would you like to own an invisibility cloak like the one Harry Potter sneaks around in in J. K. Rowling’s fantasy novels? Well, according to an online report in the journal Science, researchers in England and the United States think they know how to make one.

The real magic is that it’s theoretically possible to make such a cloak. But according to John Pendry, a British physicist at the Imperial College in London, what’s preventing it from happening is our engineering capabilities.

What’s needed? Special artificial materials (metamaterials) that can be tuned (on the submicroscopic level) to bend light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation around an object — like water flowing around a boulder. Such an object would neither reflect light nor cast a shadow, so it would, to an onlooker, be invisible.

Although the cloak (actually a shield) does not yet exist, blueprints for it are in the making. Pendry and his fellow researchers are now calling for help in developing the exotic materials needed to build it. Development of the invisibility cloak could be as close as 18 months away.

Amateurs Help in Possible New Planet Discovery

According to a news flash from Sky & Telescope magazine, amateur astronomers have, for the first time, helped in the discovery of a possible planet orbiting another star!

Amateur astronomers Ron Bissinger of California, Bruce Gary of Arizona, Paul Howell of Maine, and Tonny Vanmunster in Belgium, found the new planet under the direction of professional astronomer Peter McCullough (Space Telescope Science Institute). McCullough and his professional colleagues monitor the brightnesses of tens of thousands of relatively bright stars every clear night with two automated, low-light-sensitive cameras on Haleakala volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The project, known as the XO Project, searches for giant planets crossing the face of their parent star. When this happens, the star’s light dips slightly in brightness for several hours.

When the four amateurs carefully monitored one of the most promising candidates identified by the XO Project, their data revealed the telltale periodic dips of a transiting object only 30 percent larger than Jupiter. The XO team had discovered its first planet — now named XO-1b!

McCullough notes that the amateurs could not have discovered this planet without XO’s help. He also says that his telescopes probably would have eventually discovered this planet without amateur assistance. But, he says, it was “much more fun” doing it this way, with amateur involvement.