Dark Storm on Neptune reverses direction, possibly shedding a fragment
by Agency Writers
Baltimore MD (SPX) Dec 16, 2020
Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope watched a mysterious dark vortex on Neptune abruptly steer away from a likely death on the giant blue planet.
The storm, which is wider than the Atlantic Ocean, was born in the planet's northern hemisphere and discovered by Hubble in 2018. Observations a year later showed that it began drifting southward toward the equator, where such storms are expected to vanish from sight. To the surprise of observers, Hubble spotted the vortex change direction by August 2020, doubling back to the north. Though Hubble has tracked similar dark spots over the past 30 years, this unpredictable atmospheric behavior is something new to see.
Equally as puzzling, the storm was not alone. Hubble spotted another, smaller dark spot in January this year that temporarily appeared near its larger cousin. It might possibly have been a piece of the giant vortex that broke off, drifted away, and then disappeared in subsequent observations.
"We are excited about these observations because this smaller dark fragment is potentially part of the dark spot's disruption process," said Michael H. Wong of the University of California at Berkeley. "This is a process that's never been observed. We have seen some other dark spots fading away, and they're gone, but we've never seen anything disrupt, even though it's predicted in computer simulations."
The large storm, which is 4,600 miles across, is the fourth dark spot Hubble has observed on Neptune since 1993. Two other dark storms were discovered by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989 as it flew by the distant planet, but they had disappeared before Hubble could observe them. Since then, only Hubble has had the sharpness and sensitivity in visible light to track these elusive features, which have sequentially appeared and then faded away over a duration of about two years each. Hubble uncovered this latest storm in September 2018.
However, as a storm drifts toward the equator, the Coriolis effect weakens and the storm disintegrates. In computer simulations by several different teams, these storms follow a more-or-less straight path to the equator, until there is no Coriolis effect to hold them together. Unlike the simulations, the latest giant storm didn't migrate into the equatorial "kill zone."
"It was really exciting to see this one act like it's supposed to act and then all of a sudden it just stops and swings back," Wong said. "That was surprising."
Dark Spot Jr.
However, the timing of the smaller spot's emergence was unusual. "When I first saw the small spot, I thought the bigger one was being disrupted," Wong said. "I didn't think another vortex was forming because the small one is farther towards the equator. So it's within this unstable region. But we can't prove the two are related. It remains a complete mystery.
"It was also in January that the dark vortex stopped its motion and started moving northward again," Wong added. "Maybe by shedding that fragment, that was enough to stop it from moving towards the equator."
The researchers are continuing to analyze more data to determine whether remnants of dark spot jr. persisted through the rest of 2020.
Dark Storms Still Puzzling
Another unusual feature of the dark spot is the absence of bright companion clouds around it, which were present in Hubble images taken when the vortex was discovered in 2018. Apparently, the clouds disappeared when the vortex halted its southward journey. The bright clouds form when the flow of air is perturbed and diverted upward over the vortex, causing gases to likely freeze into methane ice crystals. The lack of clouds could be revealing information on how spots evolve, say researchers.
Weather Eye on the Outer Planets
OPAL's key goals are to study long-term seasonal changes, as well as capture comparatively transitory events, such as the appearance of dark spots on Neptune or potentially Uranus. These dark storms may be so fleeting that in the past some of them may have appeared and faded during multi-year gaps in Hubble's observations of Neptune. The OPAL program ensures that astronomers won't miss another one.
"We wouldn't know anything about these latest dark spots if it wasn't for Hubble," Simon said. "We can now follow the large storm for years and watch its complete life cycle. If we didn't have Hubble, then we might think the Great Dark Spot seen by Voyager in 1989 is still there on Neptune, just like Jupiter's Great Red Spot. And, we wouldn't have known about the four other spots Hubble discovered." Wong will present the team's findings Dec. 15 at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
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