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Hubble discovers mysterious dark storm on Neptune

10 February 2019

"Thankfully we're not too far away from having an answer, as the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to diagnose the temperatures and chemistry responsible for these reflectivity changes that Hubble has been monitoring", added Fletcher. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped the two distant worlds in September and November 2018 and, besides the attractive blue hues these planets present, a mysterious dark vortex on Neptune intrigued the researchers.

Every year, the Hubble space telescope takes photos of the solar system's gas giants as part of a programme to help better understand the four planets.

Patrick Irwin, a planetary scientist at Oxford University, said the phenomenon is not a storm, as NASA described it in its release.

Near the dark storm now on Neptune, Hubble spotted another atmospheric feature: sparkling white "companion clouds", which scientists have spotted around dark storms in the past.

"It's a spectacular example of seasonal change on this ice giant, with the aerosol cap evolving as spring becomes summer".

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Near the edge of the cloud, NASA says, is a massive but narrow cloud of methane gas which can get bright enough that it can be photographed by amateur astronomers.

NASA Hubble survey has also found similar atmospheric events on the frozen planet Uranus. Accordingly, it's trickier to estimate precisely how a mysterious dark vortex like the one recently observed forms.

Hubble uncovered the latest storm in September 2018 in Neptune's northern hemisphere.

"These clouds are similar to clouds that appear as pancake-shaped features when air is pushed over mountains on Earth (though Neptune has no solid surface)", the STScI said. The feature is roughly 6,800 miles (10,944 km) across.

The causes of these dark spots is a mystery, but because they're only seen at the bluest wavelengths, "my money is on some sort of coloration of the clouds", said Irwin.

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In this case, it is still unclear just why these storms form, but much like the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, they swirl in an anticyclonic direction. The scientists hypothesized that these large vortices born deep in the Neptune's atmosphere, where gases like helium and hydrogen are more prevalent than in the upper atmosphere. The giant is sporting a wide white spot across its north pole.

Like the Earth, Uranus and Neptune have seasons, which have their own characteristics.

Unlike the other planets that make up the solar system, Uranus is tilted to the side meaning that during the summer the sun shines on the north pole nearly exclusively, never setting. It's now mid-summer at Uranus' north pole, resulting in the protracted white cap.

NASA explained that the planet is in the middle of summer and because of its weird tilt, the north pole is always facing the sun, never setting. But as time progressed, a reflective band-whitish against Uranus' blue hues-began to appear encircling the north pole.

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Hubble discovers mysterious dark storm on Neptune