Why these giant planets matter - Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is usually dominated by two dark bands in its atmosphere, with one in the north and one in the south. Now one of its red stripes seems to missing and astronomers don't know what's going on.
The band could be seen at the end of last year before Jupiter hid behind the sun as it moved through its orbit. However, when it emerged from hiding three months later, the belt had disappeared. In the Daily Mail, Claire Bates quotes amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley as saying, "The question now is when will the South Equatorial belt erupt back into activity and reappear?" This is not the first time this has happened: Jupiter loses or regains one of its belts every 10 or 15 years, although exactly why this happens is a still a mystery.
The explanation for the current loss may lie in the fact that without warning, a mystery object struck Jupiter on July 19, 2009, leaving a dark bruise the size of the Pacific Ocean. The spot first caught the eye of an amateur astronomer in Australia, and soon, observatories around the world, including NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, were zeroing in on the unexpected blemish.
Jupiter has a complex belt system: It's a giant ball of gas and liquid with a surface made up of dense red, brown, yellow, and white clouds arranged in light-colored areas called zones and darker regions called belts. These clouds are created by chemicals that have formed at different heights. The highest white clouds in the zones are crystals of frozen ammonia. Darker, lower clouds are created from chemicals like sulfur and phosphorus. The clouds are blown into bands by the 350 mph winds caused by Jupiter's rapid rotation.
Large, Jupiter-like planets in an outer orbit are one sign of a solar system that may harbor life, since the "Jupiters" absorb life-destroying blows from incoming space rocks. Astronomers hunting for planets orbiting nearby stars similar to the sun are looking for signs of rocky, Earth-like planets in a "habitable" zone, where conditions such as temperature and liquid water remain stable enough to support life.
But it's not that simple: new findings from computer modeling indicate that some of those exoplanets might fluctuate between being habitable and being inhospitable to life because of the forces exerted by giant Jupiter-like neighbors with strange orbits. Astronomer Rory Barnes says, "There is this crazy zoo of planets out there that probably are habitable, but their properties are very different from Earth and they're different from Earth because of their eccentric neighbors. For part of the time liquid water could exist on the surface, but at others it would boil off." Maybe they come here during the bad season?
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