Washington: High-resolution infrared images of Uranus have revealed incredible detail about the bizarre weather of the seventh planet from the sun.
The researchers used Keck II telescope, located on the summit of Hawaii’s 14,000-foot extinct volcano Mauna Kea, to capture the images that provide the best look to date of Uranus’s complex and enigmatic weather.
The planet’s deep blue-green atmosphere is thick with hydrogen, helium and methane, Uranus’s primary condensable gas. Winds blow mainly east to west at speeds up to 560 miles per hour, in spite of the small amounts of energy available to drive them.
Its atmosphere is almost equal to Neptune’s as the coldest in our solar system with cloud-top temperatures in the minus 360-degree Fahrenheit range, cold enough to freeze methane.
Large weather systems, which are probably much less violent than the storms we know on Earth, behave in bizarre ways on Uranus, explained Larry Sromovsky, a University of Wisconsin-Madison planetary scientist who led the new study.
“Some of these weather systems,” Sromovsky noted, “stay at fixed latitudes and undergo large variations in activity. Others are seen to drift toward the planet’s equator while undergoing great changes in size and shape. Better measures of the wind fields that surround these massive weather systems are the key to unraveling their mysteries.”
To get a better picture of atmospheric flow on Uranus, Sromovsky and colleagues Pat Fry, also of UW-Madison, Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), and Imke de Pater of the University of California at Berkeley, used new infrared techniques to detect smaller, more widely distributed weather features whose movements can help scientists trace the planet’s pattern of blustery winds.
“These images reveal an astonishing amount of complexity in Uranus’s atmosphere. We knew the planet was active, but until now much of the activity was masked by noise in our data,” said AURA’s Heidi Hammel, a co-investigator on the new observations and an expert on the atmospheres of the solar system’s outer planets.
The complexity of Uranus’s weather is puzzling, Sromovsky explained. The primary driving mechanism must be solar energy because there is no detectable internal energy source.
“But the sun is 900 times weaker there than on Earth because it is 30 times further from the sun, so you don’t have the same intensity of solar energy driving the system,” said Sromovsky.
“Thus the atmosphere of Uranus must operate as a very efficient machine with very little dissipation. Yet the weather variations we see seem to defy that requirement,” he stated.
The new Keck II pictures of the planet, according to Sromovsky, are the “most richly detailed views of Uranus yet obtained by any instrument on any observatory. No other telescope could come close to producing this result.”
The images were released in Reno, Nev. October 17, 2012 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences.
First Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012, 19:23