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Massive dark vortex size of USA appears on Neptune

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NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has spied a brand-new blemish on the surface of Neptune. New images from the spacecraft reveal that a "dark vortex" has popped up in the planet’s atmosphere. No, this has nothing to do with the Guardians of the Galaxy, nor has a spell been cast on Neptune. It’s just some weird weather.



A dark vortex is an area of high pressure in Neptune’s atmosphere that ranges in size and shape, according to NASA. These spots are usually paired with bright "companion clouds." The vortexes cause air to flow up high in the atmosphere, where the gases freeze into crystals that make up the bright clouds. Companion clouds can be spotted by telescopes and amateur astronomers here on Earth, but the dark portions of the dark vortex can only be picked up by Hubble’s high-resolution telescope.


Starting in July 2015, bright clouds were again seen on Neptune and were subsequently observed by several telescopes. Observers wondered whether these clouds were large convective storms, or bright “companion clouds” following an unseen dark vortex. In September, the question was answered by the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program, a long-term Hubble Space Telescope project that annually captures global maps of the outer planets. OPAL images revealed a dark spot close to the location of the bright clouds that had been tracked by ground-based observers, including amateurs and professional astronomers at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The vortices discovered so far exhibit surprising diversity, in terms of size, shape, oscillatory behavior, drift rates along the meridian and meandering from latitude to latitude. “The Berg” on Uranus, a similar companion cloud feature, oscillated about a fixed mean latitude – perhaps for decades – and then suddenly left that pattern and started a five-year migration toward the equator, eventually dissipating, as documented by UC Berkeley astronomy professor Imke de Pater in 2011.

Neptune’s dark vortices come and go on much shorter timescales compared to similar anticyclones on Jupiter, which evolve over decades. Many questions remain as to how dark vortices originate, what controls their drift and oscillation, how they interact with the environment and how they eventually dissipate, according to UC Berkeley’s Joshua Tollefson, who was recently awarded a prestigious NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship to study Neptune’s atmosphere. Measuring the evolution of the new dark vortex will extend knowledge of both the dark vortices themselves and the structure and dynamics of the surrounding atmosphere.

The team, led by Wong, also included the OPAL team (Wong, Amy Simon, Glenn Orton), UC Berkeley collaborators (Imke de Pater, Tollefson, Katherine de Kleer), Heidi Hammel (AURA), Statia Luscsz-Cook (AMNH), Ricardo Hueso and Agustin Sánchez-Lavega (Universidad del Pais Vasco), Marc Delcroix (Societé Astronomique de France), Larry Sromovsky and Patrick Fry (University of Wisconsin) and Christoph Baranec (University of Hawaii).


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