Located in one of the Solar System’s darkest spots, Uranus is one planet that is particularly hard to spot from Earth. Even so, astronomers have surprised massive storms in the gas giant’s atmosphere, lighting the planet up so much that even amateur astronomers could capture pictures of the storms.
Scientists used the W.M. Keck II Telescope in Hawaii on August 5th and 6th and noticed a massive spot appear on Uranus’s surface. This bright light accounted for 30 percent of all light reflected by the gas giant, so astronomers began investigating further.
“This type of activity would have been expected in 2007, when Uranus’s once every 42-year equinox occurred and the Sun shined directly on the equator,”
Heidi Hammel, co-investigator of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, said.
Astronomers explain that such activity was believed to have died down, however, it seems that the massive storms continue to rip through the atmosphere of Uranus and until now, scientists can’t explain why.
Imke de Pater is the chair of astronomy at the University of California, Berkley, and is one of the astronomers investigating Saturn’s storms. Eight large storms were identified by the team of scientists, and of those eight, the largest was particularly puzzling. Astronomers explain that its brightness was out-of-the ordinary, scaling at 2.2 microns (at this wavelength, scientists can locate storms below the tropopause, which is the lowest boundary of the stratosphere). Here, pressure ranges between 300 and 500 mbar, approximately half of the pressure on Earth’s surface.
Marc Delcroix was one of the amateur astronomers who also keenly investigated the luminous storms. He could actually confirm Régis De-Bénedictis’ photographs of storms that were missed by Keck.
“I was so happy to confirm myself these first amateur images on this bright storm on Uranus, feeling I was living a very special moment for planetary amateur astronomy.”
Images could also reveal the depths of Uranus’ atmosphere, where storms are believed to be forming in the uppermost layer of the planet’s methane-ice clouds. It’s then that Hubble Space Telescope took a peak at the activity as well and spitted multiple storm fronts, some spreading over more than 5,700 miles.
“The colors and morphology of this cloud complex suggests that the storm may be tied to a vortex in the deeper atmosphere similar to two large cloud complexes seen during the equinox,”
Larry Sromovsky, a planetary scientist at the University of Wisconsin, said.