Friday, 19 April, 2019

Hubble tracks the lifecycle of giant storms on Neptune

Hubble captures birth of giant storm on Neptune Birth of 'Great Dark Spot' Storm on Neptune Seen for 1st Time (Photo)
Cary Marshall | 28 March, 2019, 20:13

A group of scientists say that they have documented, for the first time, the birth and growth of an enormous storm system on Neptune, called a Great Dark Spot. According to the results, these companion clouds are brighter over deep storms. The team says it's roughly the same size as the Great Dark Spot, which grew to about 13,000 kilometers by 6,600 km (approximately 8,000 miles by 4,100 miles). The first two such disturbances were detected by NASA's Voyager 2 probe during its Neptune flyby in August 1989, which provided the first up-close look at the mysterious blue planet. The authors of this study have analyzed images Hubble has taken of Uranus over the past several years to chronicle the growth of a new Great Dark Spot that became visible in 2018.

But Hubble images taken in 1994 showed the storms had vanished. The Hubble Wide Field Camera 3 image of Neptune, taken in September and November 2018, shows a new dark storm (top center).

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is perhaps the best-known alien storm - but it's far from the only one. They gave insight on the ice planets that are not understood as they could be, and also on exoplanets that have similar size and composition.

"If you study the exoplanets and you want to understand how they work, you really need to understand our planets first", said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. They published their findings March 25 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

NASA's Voyager 2 captured images of two huge, dark storms brewing in Neptune's southern hemisphere in 1989 - christened the "Dark Spots". Scientists dubbed the storms "The Great Dark Spot" and "Dark Spot 2".

It also allowed scientists to note the differences between Neptune's Dark Great Spots and Jupiter's Great Red Spot - a storm first observed in 1830 and that could be up to 350 years old. The team also suspected that a new dark vortex appears on Neptune every four to six years. Now scientists say they have captured the birth of one of Neptune's Great Dark Spots for the first time using the Hubble Space Telescope. They were actually monitoring another, smaller storm in Neptune from 2015 when the new one emerged.

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According to NASA, these clouds are made up of methane ice crystals and sit high in the atmosphere above the darker material. They found the clouds were brightest in 2016 and 2017, before the new Great Dark Spot became visible.

"We have never directly measured winds within Neptune's dark vortices, but we estimate the wind speeds are in the ballpark of 328 feet (100 meters) per second [223 mph, or 359 km/h], quite similar to wind speeds within Jupiter's Great Red Spot", Wong said in the same statement.

For the most part, though, storms likely last about two years.

Neptune is the eighth and most distant planet from the Sun in the Solar System, which was discovered in 1846. Scientists have spotted a total of six dark spots on Neptune over the past 30 years: In 1989, the Voyager 2 noticed two storms and since the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990, it has viewed four more of these dark storms on the icy planet.

Michael H. Wong, Andrew I. Hsu: University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, California, U.S.A.

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