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Saturday, 22 May 2010

Joy Bringer

Right, I got over excited. We all make mistakes. The disappearance of one of Jupiter's stripes, isn't such a big deal. How was I to know? If a belt twice the diameter of the Earth vanishes, almost overnight wouldn't you think something pretty important had happened? No?

This is how the movie reel was running in my mind's eye after reading the news. It's me and Helen Mirren on the spaceship Leonov.   We're desperately in love, and thawing out from 6 months deep freeze hasn't helped the uncontrollable ardour we have for each other. But we're astronauts and more importantly - we're professionals dedicated to solving the mysteries of the Universe. So we put our lusts to one side and focus on trying to ensure the continued survival of mankind by ending the US - USSR dash for mega fall out - and trying to discover who or what mashed up super sexy, but clearly very mad Dave Bowman - and  keep an eye on Europa and the alien life form we all knew was down there but didn't dare mention.

In space no one can hear you fart. Except the highly evolved sensory organs of the great blob that lives under the ice of Europa. It was a Helen Mirren fart that led to that super alien life form getting completely the wrong end of the cosmic stick and, thinking that it had an order for a trillion eccles cakes,  turned the planet Jupiter into another Sun.Too late it realised its mistake and the part played by the alluring, classically trained actress, Helen in bringing about the downfall of an ancient galactic empire.

The rest is common knowledge. Most of the asteroids were burnt to a crispy cinder, Mars was warmed up so that its seas offered exquisite surfing all Martian year round and Saturn's solid methane shell was turned into the biggest fuel depot this side of Newport Pagnell.

So the loss of a stripe on Jupiter must mean something major. OK, not as major as Helen Mirren in Caligula but pretty stupendous. Anyway, it turns out it's not that unusual. It's been coming and going, on and off for years, and as recently as 2007.

Even so it's a pretty amazing event. Jupiter is huge. It's atmosphere is 5000 km deep, except it has no solid surface. The stripe's width is twice the diameter of the earth and 20 times as long - for something like this to disappear and reappear requires significant forces to be in play. I've heard some theories; such as clouds have formed above the stripe and that's obscured it from our view. The trouble with that theory is that we don't understand how such clouds could form so we're really no better off.

Oh, to send a probe into the Jovian atmosphere. Except with wind speeds in excess of 300 kph and pressures similar to deep ocean trenches it's going to be  tricky. But a probe is on the cards.

There is so much that is intriguing about our largest planet. Without it it's unlikely life would have got started here. Jupiter the great Dyson in the sky swept up much of the deadly debris from our  solar system's formation. After a period of intense meteoroid bombardment early on, the interplay between Jupiter and the Sun meant that much of the loose debris was trapped in what became the asteroid belt or was swept up by Jupiter or flung into deep deep space by its huge gravitational field.

Without that, our planet would have been subjected to regular and massive impacts throughout its history, making it impossible for life to get a hold and develop.

We owe our very existence to that Bringer of Jollity

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