Red speck launches young Pinoy’s international career in astronomy
Christopher Go with his Celestron C11 mounted on AP900GTO
Go’s famous Red Spot Junior image
Feb 25, 2006, 4:45 AM (Universal Date: Feb 24): While most part of the country was still in dreamland, Christopher Go, a Cebu-based astrophotographer jolted out of his bed. “I’m late!” he yelped, noting he was 45 minutes behind schedule that day to image planet Jupiter.
It was one of those peculiar times when the late bird catches the worm. Using his telescope and imaging camera, it was the perfect time for Chris to catch a small red spot on Jupiter’s surface just as it was rising. “It was fortuitous,” he admitted. Had he been earlier, he would not have captured the birth of the new red spot, now known as Red Spot Jr.
He alerted the members of Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers about his discovery, which was later confirmed by Richard Schmude of ALPO’s Jupiter section. After a week, Chris’s discovery was all over the world news. It was Tony Philips of Spaceweather.com who coined the name Red Spot Jr. or Red Jr.
For his discovery, this 1991 B.S. Physics graduate of the University of San Carlos in Cebu received ALPO's 2008 Walter Haas Award and a Presidential Medal of Merit from President Gloria Arroyo. Earlier, Chris was accepted as a member of the American Astronomical Society and its Division for Planetary Sciences.
What’s with the red spot?
Chris’s discovery is named Junior because there is a bigger red spot called the Great Red Spot, which is actually a raging storm about 25,000 to 40,000 kilometers in area--large enough to contain two to three Earths—and packing wind speeds of 560 kilometers per hour. The spot is formed by strong convection currents that violently swirl gases on Jupiter’s atmosphere.
This storm does not dissipate in a while, unlike earthly typhoons that weaken after hitting land. This is because Jupiter has no solid surface that could moderate the rage of the storm.
Meanwhile, Red Spot Jr. is roughly half the size of its sibling. But as it is formed by the fusion of three separate storms (white ovals), Junior’s wind gustiness is just as strong as big brother’s.
“Red Junior is more like a huge typhoon about the size of the earth,” Chris said. “The only difference is that the typhoon is a low pressure vortex while Red Jr is a high pressure vortex. Red Jr. is the second largest storm in the solar system after the Great Red Spot.”
The two red spots were originally white ovals, experts say, but no one is certain why they turned red. Some experts hypothesize that the three white ovals intensified into a storm system and built up strength enough to dredge up reddish material from the atmosphere. “But we don’t know what this reddish material is,” New Mexico State University astronomer Reta Beebe admits. Another hypothesis asserts that the reddish material is dredged from below Jupiter’s clouds then got hit by the sun’s ultraviolet rays that give it a reddish hue.
But the dredging theory was recently disputed by Chris’s research team who found that no dredging must have occurred because the reddening took place only in certain parts. “The red color may have been caused by temperature increase in the core of the vortex,” Chris explained, “which caused a change in particle size.”
The birth of a Red Jr. on Jupiter suggests a climate change on the planet. Recent observations noted that Red Jr. is moving up on Jupiter’s atmosphere, indicating a rise in temperature. Experts assure though that nothing dramatic will happen as the two red spots move closer together.
“I have always been interested in astronomy since I was a child,” Chris revealed, “but I got serious only in 1986. I was then in high school when Halley's Comet last appeared. I viewed the spectacular phenomenon with a 10x40 binocular.”
His fondness to stargazing was inspired by Carl Sagan, an American astronomer who wrote popular science books and the award-winning television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” in the 1980s.
Chris admits that his knowledge in astronomy is mostly self-taught. In 1988, he and his friends organized the University of San Carlos Astronomical Society. Two years after, he got his first telescope and started taking photos of planets (called planetary imaging) in 2003.
“Jupiter is a very dynamic planet. Things change everyday,” he replied when asked why he chose Jupiter as his imaging subject.
In fact, Chris expects exciting things this year, such as Jupiter going on equinox like Saturn, which means that the sun will be directly overhead the planet and its day and night are of equal length. Anthony Wesley, one of Go’s friends and colleagues, also discovered an impact mark on Jupiter this year. The mark is a dark spot which may be the result of a large crash of either an asteroid or comet on the planet’s surface.
Now, a full-fledged planetary astronomer and more
Currently, Chris does planetary research as a member of a University of California - Berkeley team headed by Dr. Imke de Pater. “Our research aims to gain better understanding on the relations of the major vortices of Jupiter with its periodic upheavals,” he said. His team uses the Hubble Space Telescope to image Jupiter. They are now in the stage of synthesizing and interpreting their data, he added.
Chris also works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that intends to establish observatories around the world to image the planets, he said.
While Chris continues to image Jupiter every clear night, he keeps himself busy during the day by running his Cebu-based furniture manufacturing shop called Christone Industries. The shop specializes on fossil stone, wrought iron, wood, and stone casting furniture.
He also holds regular stargazing and other activities at the USC Talamban Campus. Moreover, Chris has set up a website that provides regular updates and images on Red Spot Jr.
Filipino youth interested in astronomy may consider specializing in planetary imaging, Chris suggested. “This is an area that we in the Philippines can excel in. Our position is ideal and our atmospheric condition is the best in the world,” he said.
International Year of Astronomy
This year, the world celebrates the International Year of Astronomy spearheaded by the International Astronomical Union and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In celebrating the IYA, organizers aim to make citizens of the world “rediscover their place in the Universe through the day- and night-time sky.”
Aside from coinciding with the 40th year of man’s first step on the moon through Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969, this year also celebrates the 400th anniversary of the first recorded astronomical use of the telescope by Galileo.
President Gloria Arroyo’s Presidential Proclamation No. 1630 declared the country’s participation in the celebration, with the Department of Science and Technology as the lead agency.