Neptune's Weird Dark Spot Just Got Weirder
An image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope's wide-field camera on January 7, 2020 shows a second, swaying dark spot on the planet Neptune that is wider than the Atlantic. (NASA, ESA, STScI, M. H. Wong, L. A. Sromovsky, and P. M. Fry via the New York Times)
Neptune offers some of the strangest weather conditions in the solar system. The eighth planet of the sun holds the record for the fastest winds observed on a world, with speeds rising through the atmosphere up to 1,100 miles per hour, or 1 1/2 times the speed of sound. Scientists still don't know exactly why the atmosphere is so turbulent. Her recent look at Neptune was even more confusing.
The Hubble Space Telescope identified a storm in 2018, a dark spot about 4,600 miles in diameter. Since then it appears to have migrated towards the equator, but then shot north again according to the latest Hubble observations. There is also a smaller companion storm, nicknamed Dark Spot Jr., which scientists believe is a piece that canceled the main storm. These swirls of ink stand out against the dizzying sky blue of the planet, but while they're dazzling to see, their lifespans are short, making them even more difficult to study.
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This isn't the first time Neptune's dark spots have acted so strangely. When the spaceship Voyager 2 passed the planet in 1990 (still the only spaceship to do so), it observed two storms. One was the original Dark Spot, a large vortex the size of Earth. It also had a companion, a smaller, fast-moving storm nicknamed Scooter. The first Dark Spot observed also appeared to be moving south and then back north.
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"As we tracked the great dark spot with Voyager, we saw it sway up and down in length," said Heidi Hammel, a member of the Voyager 2 spacecraft's imaging team and currently vice president of science at the Association of Universities for Astronomical Research. “We had enough time on Voyager to see the feature about four to five months before the flyby. That storm was huge, a big monster. "
But when the Voyager team had time with the Hubble telescope to re-observe the storms, they were gone four years later. Astronomers estimate that the average lifespan of a Neptune Tower is between two and five years and that its lifespan can also depend on its size. This is in contrast to the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, the other most famous storm in our outer solar system, which is temporarily shrinking but has been rotating constantly for at least hundreds of years.
Neptune's dark eddies plunge deep into the planet - think of them as the canopy of a very tall tree with roots that extend to the core of the icy world. This long connection can move the storm in all directions, allowing it to drift south with the winds or to be pulled north again. However, if these major storms drift south to the planet's equator, where the wind fields are even stronger, they can be torn apart.
Since astronomers only get one shot per year to use Hubble to look at Neptune, it's difficult to really monitor the spirited atmosphere. When scientists discover new storms, we have few chances of seeing them before they disappear.
"This whole idea of them disappearing is one of the most puzzling aspects of them," said Hammel.
Until humans can get an orbiter around the planet to better understand the life cycle of these storms, we have more questions than answers about this blue beauty. Will Dark Spot and Dark Spot Jr. survive? Check back in 2021 to find out.
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
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