Jupiter, Venus and Mars hit the planetary headlines

The most famous feature on giant planet Jupiter, the Great Red Spot, is steadily shrinking. This change has been going on for some time, but images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope over the past two decades show the extent of the change.

Great Red Spot
Jupiter from Hubble on 21 April, 2014, and showing how its Great Red Spot has shrunk over the last two decades. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

The spot is actually a massive anti-cyclone that has been raging in the planet’s cloudtops since at least 1831, and possibly a lot longer. It now measures 16,500 km across (10,250 miles) compared to 21,243 km (13,020 miles) in 1995.

But NASA’s Voyager probes showed it to be 23,300 km wide (14,500 miles) in 1979 and it was judged to be 33,000 km (25,500 miles) way back in the 19th Century. You can read my full report on the shrinking Great Red Spot on the new space website Sen.

Staying with the planets, the European Space Agency is about to send its veteran space probe Venus Express plunging into the outer atmosphere of that planet.

Though cloud-shrouded Venus is similar in size to Earth and also rocky, it is an incredibly hostile place, with poisonous air, a temperature at the surface that is more than twice the maximum in a domestic oven, and atmospheric pressure strong enough to crush anything that survived the other perils.

But as ESA prepares for the end of the eight-year-old mission, it is going to send Venus Express dipping into the sulphuric acid-laden atmosphere to get a taste of its composition. Again, you can read my full report on this daring event here at Sen.

Mars is also in the headlines again, with news that NASA has got the go-ahead to begin building its next Mars lander, called InSight, following a successful Mission Critical Design Review.

InSight is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, and the stationary probe will be the first to penetrate deep into the martian surface to study the planet’s interior.

It will blast off from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in March 2016, and reach Mars six months later in September. Read my full report on the Sen website.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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