NASA/ESA’s Hubble space telescope has confirmed the existence of a “dark vortex” the size of the United States on planet Neptune’s surface. The strange feature was first observed last summer, but it was officially confirmed by the Hubble team last month.
Scientists explained that the vortex is so immense that it could engulf the entire United States if it happened on our planet.
Mike Wong, one of the researchers who analyzed Hubble imagery and astronomer at Berkeley, likened the natural phenomena to a “huge, lens-shaped gaseous mountain” that travels at monster speeds through the atmosphere.
Wong added that the bright clouds around the vortex are very similar to the orographic clouds over some of the Earth’s mountains. On our planet, the pancake-shaped clouds form over mountains as a response to the lifting of air caused by high elevations with high pressures.
Vortices on Neptune are also high-pressure features that trigger the high-altitude clouds, NASA researchers explained. The team added that within the clouds, gases reach the freezing point and morph into methane ice crystals.
The vortex was first detected by the bright clouds around it last summer. The existence of a dark vortex on Neptune took so long to confirm because it can be most visible in blue wavelengths. So scientists had to use Hubble to take a clearer glimpse at the feature.
The space telescope got a clear image of the vortex in May. Another dark vortex had been detected by Voyager 2 about three decades ago. But the latest is the first to be observed during this century.
Researchers noted that Neptune’s vortices are very different from one another. They tend to have different sizes, shapes, and appear at different latitudes. Some of them are slower than others, while some are quicker in vanishing.
Neptune’s vortices however evolve much faster than the anticyclones observed on Jupiter, where similar storms need decades to complete their life cycle.
NASA also announced this week that it will keep Hubble operational five more years through 2021. The space agency said that the space observatory was “better than never” even though the latest shuttle servicing operation was seven years ago.
NASA is confident that the “outstanding general purpose observatory” will continue to provide humanity with valuable data on our solar system and the known universe into the 2020s as well.
Image Source: Wikimedia