Published: Thu, March 28, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Hubble Space Telescope Captures 'Birth of Massive Storm' on Neptune

Hubble Space Telescope Captures 'Birth of Massive Storm' on Neptune

Images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope document the formation of a Great Dark Spot on Neptune for the first time, report researchers in a new study. Like Jupiter's Great Red Spot, Neptune's Great Dark Spot is a storm brewing in the planet's atmosphere under high pressure conditions.

Neptune's great dark spots are known as storms that form from high atmospheric pressure areas, unlike Earth, where storms typically form around low pressure areas.

Scientists ran computer simulations of Neptune to try and gain understanding into the disappearance of the Great Dark Spot. Voyager 2 snapped pics of a couple of massive storms with the Earth-sized larger storm dubbed "The Great Dark Spot" and the smaller storm called "Dark Spot 2". Hubble has spotted four more since its launch in 1990. They discovered that the clouds were the most bright in 2016 and 2017, before the new great dark spot became visible in 2018.

The study published on Monday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters showed that one of Neptune's Great Dark Spots or giant storms originated much deeper in the planet's atmosphere than previously thought. The Hubble image shows a new dark storm (top center).

The images helped a lot because they could see how often the planet gets these dark spots. It is about 8,000 miles by 4,100 miles (13,000 km by 6,600 km) in size - as large along its longer dimension as the Earth. However, wind in Neptune has a wider band that allows the storms to drift across latitudes.

The new findings have implications for studying exoplanets of similar size and composition.

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For the first time ever, scientists were able to observe the birth and development of a new Great Dark Spot on Neptune. They were surprised to see hat the two giant storms had disappeared. This last tidbit would make the Great Dark Spots of Neptune different from those on Jupiter, whose Great Red Spot is at least 350 years old (it was first seen in 1830).

A new Great Dark Spot appeared on Neptune in 2018, almost identical in size and shape to the one Voyager saw in 1989.

"We were so busy tracking this smaller storm from 2015, that we weren't necessarily expecting to see another big one so soon", Simon said. It started when several small, high-altitude clouds made of methane ice crystals came together. The team suspected they somehow accompany the storms that form dark spots, likely hovering above them the same way that lenticular clouds cap tall mountains here on Earth. In 2018, Hubble spied an entirely new storm system. The similarities between storms on both planets end there, however. Ideally, scientists would like to have a satellite in orbit of Neptune, but the current vortex won't last longer than six years - that's the record for other such Neptunian storms.

The ones on Neptune peter out much more quickly and can last up to six years.

"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.

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

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