Astronomers discover Great Cold Spot on Jupiter

Astronomers have discovered a massive aurorae-generated weather system, dubbed the Great Cold Spot, on Jupiter. Comparable in scale to the planet’s famous Great Red Spot, the phenomenon may have existed for thousands of years and is the first direct evidence of a sustained weather system generated by polar aurorae, opening the possibility of similar phenomena on other planets.

Observed by University of Leicester astronomers as a localised dark spot that is up to 24,000km tall and 12,000km wide, the spot is located in the planet’s thin high-altitude thermosphere. It is thought to bearound 200 Kelvin cooler than the surrounding atmosphere, which has a temperature range of between 700K (426°C) and 1000K (726°C).

“This is the first time any weather feature in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere has been observed away from the planet’s bright aurorae,” said study lead author Dr Tom Stallard, associate professor in Planetary Astronomy at the University of Leicester.

“The Great Cold Spot is much more volatile than the slowly changing Great Red Spot, changing dramatically in shape and size over only a few days and weeks, but it has re-appeared for as long as we have data to search for it, for over 15 years.  That suggests that it continually reforms itself, and as a result it might be as old as the aurorae that form it – perhaps many thousands of years old.”

The phenomenon is thought to be caused by the magnetic field of the planet, with Jupiter’s polar aurorae pushing energy into the atmosphere in the form of heat flowing around the planet. This push creates a cooling region in the thermosphere; the boundary layer between the underlying atmosphere and the vacuum of space.

The Great Cold Spot was found by using the CRIRES instrument on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to observe spectral emissions of H3+, an ion of hydrogen present in large amounts in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  With the ion observed, the astronomers were able to map the mean temperature and density of the planet’s atmosphere.

The team was then able to compare its map to images of H3+ emission from Jupiter’s ionosphere taken by NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility from 1995 to 2000. By combining images taken over set periods of time, including over 13,000 images taken over more than 40 nights by the InfraRed Telescope Facility, the team was able to find the Cold Spot as a dark area in Jupiter’s hot upper atmosphere.

The changing shape of the newly discovered Great Cold Spot, as observed over time. Image courtesy of the University of Leicester. Featured image courtesy of NASA

“What is surprising at Jupiter is that, unlike weather systems on Earth, the Great Cold Spot has been observed at the same place across 15 years. That makes it more comparable to weather systems in Jupiter’s lower atmosphere, like the Great Red Spot,” added Stallard, who is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

“Observations and modelling of Earth’s upper atmosphere have shown that, on the short term, there may be changes in the temperature and density of the upper atmosphere.”

The team now hopes to use what was learnt of the Cold Spot to search for other such features that may be hidden in the gas giant’s atmosphere.

The study, which is published in Geophysical Research Letters, is available in full online.

DJI’s First Drone Arena in Tokyo to Open This Saturday

Consumer drone giant DJI will open its first Japanese drone arena in the city of Tokyo this Saturday, providing a space for both hardened professionals and curious newcomers to hone their flying skills.

The arena, which covers an area of 535 square metres, will not only include a large flying area complete with obstacles, but also offer a store where visitors can purchase the latest DJI drones and a technical support area where drone owners can get help with quadcopter issues.

The hope is that the arena will allow those who are curious about the technology but currently lack the space to try it out to get involved.

“As interest around our aerial technology continues to grow, the DJI Arena concept is a new way for us to engage not just hobbyists but also those considering this technology for their work or just for the thrill of flying,” said Moon Tae-Hyun, DJI’s director of brand management and operations.

“Having the opportunity to get behind the remote controller and trying out the technology first hand can enrich the customer experience. When people understand how it works or how easy it is to fly, they will discover what this technology can do for them and see a whole new world of possibilities.”

Images courtesy of DJI

In addition to its general sessions, which will allow members of the public to drop by and try their hand at flying drones, the arena will also offer private hire, including corporate events. For some companies, then, drone flying could become the new golf.

There will also be regular events, allowing pros to compete against one another, and drone training, in the form of DJI’s New Pilot Experience Program, for newcomers.

The arena has been launched in partnership with Japan Circuit, a developer of connected technologies, including drones.

“We are extremely excited to partner with DJI to launch the first DJI Arena in Japan,” said Tetsuhiro Sakai, CEO of Japan Circuit.

“Whether you are a skilled drone pilot or someone looking for their first drone, we welcome everyone to come and learn, experience it for themselves, and have fun. The new DJI Arena will not only serve as a gathering place for drone enthusiasts but also help us reach new customers and anyone interested in learning about this incredible technology.”

The arena is the second of its kind to be launched by DJI, with the first located in Yongin, South Korea, and detailed in the video above. .

Having opened in 2016, the area has attracted visitors from around the world, demonstrating serious demand for this type of entertainment space.

If the Tokyo launch goes well, it’s likely DJI will look at rolling out its arena concept to other cities, perhaps even bringing the model to the US and Europe.

For now, however, those who are interested can book time at the Tokyo arena here.

Commercial Human Spaceflight Advances Prompt Calls for Space Safety Institute

Commercial human spaceflight has been a long-held dream, but now it is finally poised to become a reality. Companies including Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are inching ever closer to taking private citizens into space, and there are serious plans for spaceports in several parts of the world, including Hawaii, the US, and Scotland, the UK.

But while the industry is advancing, the legal side of this fledgling commercial space industry remains underdeveloped, leading to calls for the development of an organisation to establish a framework for the safe operation of spaceports for human commercial spaceflights.

Writing in the journal New Space, Mclee Kerolle, from the United States International Institute of Space Law in Paris, France, has proposed the establishment of a Space Safety Institute recognised by the US congress and the United Nations.

This institute would “develop, enforce and adopt standards of excellence”, allowing the industry to develop while protecting it from liability and insurance risks.

“Currently, no international regulatory body exists to regulate the operation of spaceports,” he wrote. “This is unfortunate because while the advent of commercial human spaceflight industry is imminent, a majority of the focus from the legal community will be on regulating spaceflights and space access vehicles.

“However, the regulation of spaceports should be viewed in the same light as the rest of the commercial human spaceflight industry.”

The article focuses particularly on the establishment of a spaceport at the Kona International Airport in Keahole, Hawaii. At present, the spaceport’s development is subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Authority, however there are aspects to spaceport development that do not apply to conventional aviation operations.

A spacesuit design for commercial flights developed by SpaceX. Featured image: SpaceX’s proposed spaceport for its conceptual interplanetary transport system. All images courtesy of SpaceX

The institute would be designed to first and foremost ensure safety within the industry, so it would be important, according to Kerolle, to ensure it was made up of individuals with expertise in the field, rather than bureaucrats.

“To make sure that this flexibility is inherent in a Space Safety Institute, the organization should be composed of individuals within the industry as opposed to government officials who are not familiar with the commercial human spaceflight industry,” he wrote.

“As a result, this should protect the commercial human spaceflight industry to some liability exposure, as well as promote growth in the industry to ensure the industry’s survival.”