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Bye-bye, Baby Red Spot

These pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope show the passage of Red Spot Jr.
and Baby Red Spot in a band of clouds below the Great Red Spot. Junior (the two-
toned spot at the very bottom) survived unscathed, but Baby (indicated by the
arrow at far right) wasn't so lucky. Click on the image for a larger version.

Back in May, the scientists behind the Hubble Space Telescope announced the birth of a bouncing Baby Red Spot in Jupiter's turbulent clouds. Unfortunately, some creatures eat their young: The latest Hubble imagery reveals that the Baby Red Spot is being gobbled up by the planet's larger and older Great Red Spot.

Baby Red's sad fate is the consequence of the complex storm patterns in Jupiter's atmosphere. The spots are actually cyclones swirling within a band of clouds. Over the past couple of months, Baby Red and a slightly older storm nicknamed Red Spot Jr. have been catching up to and passing around the Great Red Spot.

Imagery from Hubble and from ground-based telescopes revealed how the baby was caught up in the big spot's spin. "It was torn in two," Amy Simon-Miller, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told me today.

A pale remnant of Baby Red may survive the encounter, but it's at least as likely that the shrunken spot will be pulled into the Great Red Spot's powerful blender and merely add more energy to the longer-lived storm. That's probably how the Great Red Spot has been able to hang around for hundreds of years: by gobbling up smaller storms in its path.

Junior lives on
For Simon-Miller and her Hubble team colleagues, including New Mexico State University's Nancy Chanover and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Glenn Orton, the short-lived baby was a bonus. When they requested their telescope time, their primary objective was to track Red Spot Jr.

"The little guy popping up was not known when we started doing the observations," Simon-Miller said.

Unlike Baby, Red Spot Jr. appears to be a survivor: It was formed several years ago by the merger of three smaller, white-colored storms, and earned its nickname in 2006 by turning from white to red. So far, Junior has steered clear its bigger rival, and Simon-Miller thinks it will hold its own in Jupiter's atmospheric clash.

"The Great Red Spot's never going to eat it," she said.

Why a Red Spot?
One big question remains: Exactly what makes the Red Spots red? The prevailing view is that some sort of reddish material containing sulfur, phosphorus or hydrocarbons is churned up by a change in atmospheric dynamics. Scientists even know there are differences between the Great Red Spot and Junior - but they haven't yet identified the mechanism or the material.

Simon-Miller said Hubble could check the chemical signature of the cloud tops in Jupiter's chilly, hydrogen-rich atmosphere. However, there's nothing on Earth to compare it to. "We have to have a lab space on Earth that can measure things at the same temperature and pressure," she said.

As a result, the life and death of a storm on Jupiter is still a mysterious thing. Baby Red, we hardly knew ye.

Update for 4:40 p.m. ET July 18: It looks like a bit of Baby Red may live on, Daniel Fischer notes in the latest edition of The Cosmic Mirror. Amateur observations, made after the Hubble images were captured, appear to show a remnant of the little spot on the other side of the Great Red Spot. In a comment below, Fischer maintains that the reports of the Baby Red Spot's death are premature.

For different perspectives on Jupiter and the Great Red Spot, check out our "Jewels of Jupiter" slide show as well as recent views from NASA's New Horizons probe.