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Surprises revealed in new 4K Jupiter close-up by Hubble

The space telescope is taking a close look at the gas giant and finds that a massive wave on the planet seen decades ago wasn't just a fluke.

This false-color close-up of Jupiter shows cyclones (arrows) and a rarely seen wave (vertical lines). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Space Telescope Science Institute

If there's an elephant in our solar system, it's got to be Jupiter. The biggest planet in our neighborhood may be huge, but it's also been overlooked lately as we focus on its moons like Europa or Ganymede, which are both believed to harbor subsurface oceans.

It's kind of a shame because, although Jupiter and its crushing gravity don't provide for the most hospitable destination for future astronauts or, well, anything, it remains a hugely fascinating planet. Fortunately, the Hubble Space Telescope is in the process of taking an annual closer look at the outer planets before it comes to the end of its lifespan. (Don't worry, more powerful successors are almost ready to launch.)

Scientists have produced two new maps of Jupiter with the first set of data from the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy program. The maps were also used to create the below 4K (aka ultra high-definition) video of the gas giant. The observations reveal a rare wave in the atmosphere that hasn't been seen since Voyager 2 captured it decades ago and a new filament in the Great Red Spot that's never been seen before.

"Until now, we thought the wave seen by Voyager 2 might have been a fluke," Glenn Orton of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement Tuesday. "As it turns out, it's just rare."

Orton and his colleagues authored a paper describing the findings in the Astrophysical Journal.

They also confirmed some continuing trends on Jupiter, including the shrinking of the Great Red Spot, a planet-size hurricane that's been swirling for years, if not millennia. It's also starting to look a little more orange than red, but its winds are still blowing at a snappy 330 miles (530 kilometers) per hour.

"Every time we look at Jupiter, we get tantalizing hints that something really exciting is going on," said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "This time is no exception."