Celestial Tour: Our Stormy Solar System

Video Player

Video Versions

On Earth, large storms can be forces of destruction and terror. But imagine a storm that's bigger than Earth itself. One such storm has been raging on Jupiter for hundreds of years... and it's changing.

Our Dynamic Solar System
Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach.
All images, illustrations, and videos courtesy of NASA, ESA, and STScI except:
  • Amateur image of 2009 impact site on Jupiter courtesy of Anthony Wesley
  • Gemini North Telescope image of 2009 impact site on Jupiter courtesy of Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley), Heidi B. Hammel (Space Science Institute), Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Gemini Observatory/AURA
  • Taurus constellation drawing from Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia by Johannes Hevelius, courtesy of the United States Naval Observatory
  • 1879 photo of Jupiter and Great Red Spot from A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century by Agnes M. Clerk (1885)
  • 2014 image of Jupiter and Great Red Spot courtesy of Damian Peach
  • Infrared images of Uranus from Keck Observatory courtesy of Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley)/Keck Observatory
  • Animation showing axial tilts of solar system planets courtesy of Steven Sanders, Eastern University
  • Animation comparing axial tilts of Earth and Uranus courtesy of Steven Sanders, Eastern University
  • Written by Vanessa Thomas
  • Designed by Marc Lussier
  • Music courtesy of Associated Production Music

A planetary body against blackness. 
Title, Our Stormy Solar System. 
Planet Earth with white swirls above water and land. 
Text, On Earth, large storms can be forces of destruction and terror. 
But imagine a storm that's bigger than Earth itself. 
Light orange and blue planet with large swirl of dark orange. 
Text, One such storm has been raging on Jupiter for hundreds of years. 
And it's changing. 
Side by side photos, Jupiter's Great Red Spot in 1879 and 2014. Text, In the late 1800s, Jupiter's Great Red Spot was so big three Earths could fit inside it. 
Craft with large white disc travels through space. 
A hundred years later, during the Voyager spacecraft flybys of 1979, the Great Red Spot had shrunk to twice the size of Earth. 
Shiny silver tube-shaped telescope with paneled wings floats. 
Text, The Hubble Space Telescope has monitored the Spot's shrinkage since the early 1990s. 
Photos of Red Spot dated 1995, 2009, and 2014. 
Today, Jupiter's famous storm is only a bit bigger than Earth. 
As the Great Red Spot has shrunk, new stormy spots have appeared and grown on Jupiter. 
Three oval shapes near the Great Red Spot are highlighted. 
Text, Astronomers have tracked these three white ovals since the 1930s. 
Black and white photos dated '97, '98, '99, and 2000 show the three ovals closer and closer together. 
Text, From 1997 to 2000, Hubble watched as the three ovals merged, forming a storm half the size of the Great Red Spot. 
Next to the Great Red Spot, a smaller red spot. 
In early 2006, the resulting oval turned red, giving Jupiter two red spots. 
It was the first time anyone had witnessed the emergence of a red spot on Jupiter. 
Nearer to the small red spot is a third oval shape with dark orange in the center. 
Text, Then, in 2008, yet another Jovian storm spontaneously turned from white to red. 
In just a few years, Jupiter went from having one red spot to three. 
Photo dated May 2008 shows three oval shapes, small medium and large. 
Text, But the newest, quote, baby red spot, unquote, would not last long. 
June 2008 photo shows baby red spot closer to Great Red Spot, July 2008 photo shows just the two spots, medium and large. 
A few months after turning red, the smaller storm passed by the Great Red Spot and was destroyed. 
Farther away from the Great Red Spot, quote, Red Spot Jr., unquote, has survived several brushes with the monster storm and continues on today. 
Text, Jupiter isn't the only place in the solar system where big storms come and go. 
Spacecraft with white disc flies through starry darkness. 
When NASA's Voyager 2 flew past Neptune in 1989, astronomers saw an enormous dark vortex that reminded them of Jupiter's Great Red Spot. 
Bright blue Neptune with an oval spot near center which is a darker blue. 
Had this Great Dark Spot been swirling on Neptune for centuries, like the Great Red Spot on Jupiter? 
In 1994, Hubble offered a clue to this mystery. 
1994 Visible and infrared composite. Three hazy shots of Neptune with scatters of pink splotches but no dark blue spot. 
When Hubble turned its great eye onto Neptune, it found some smaller cloud systems scattered across the planet. 
But the Great Dark Spot had vanished. 
Bright spherical body which glows light blue. 
Text, The opposite happened on Uranus. 
When Voyager 2 flew past Uranus in 1986, it found almost no activity in the planet's clouds. 
Uranus with various shades of blue stripes which run top to bottom, Close-up view of one oval-shaped dark spot. 
But 20 years later, Hubble revealed a dark spot brewing in the clouds of Uranus. 
Compared to giant Uranus, the spot seemed small. 
Close-up view of Uranus' dark spot turns 90 degrees, an outline of the United States lays over the top. 
Text, However, if transported to Earth, the vortex would have covered two-thirds of the continental United States. 
Eventually, this storm faded as well. 
Three black and white infrared light images from the Keck Observatory dated August 8 1998, August 5 2014, and August 6 2014, Images show bright spots in different locations. 
Text, But other storms continue to come and go on Uranus. 
Huge storms can erupt on small planets too. 
Orange planetary body with splotches of black near center and areas of white-blue at both ends. 
Text, Mars is known for its fierce and unpredictable dust storms. 
On June 26, 2001, Hubble spotted a dust storm brewing in Hellas Basin, a large crater in the southern hemisphere of Mars. 
Features of Mars disappear underneath a hazy orange color. 
Within days, the entire planet was enveloped in dust. 
Photos from August 9, 10, 14, and September 4, All show the planet covered in a cloudy orange. 
Text, Dust shrouded Mars for three months. 
Giant white swirl over body of blue water. 
Text, Planet Earth has its own powerful storms. 
The next time one of them is barreling down on your hometown, prepare and take shelter. 
Blue Earth against blackness of space, the continents of North America and South America. 
Text, But be thankful that the storm will be over soon and won't engulf your entire planet for months or centuries at a time. 
Earth becomes smaller as it recedes to distance.