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Sunday, November 28, 2021

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The hubble telescope checks in with the most distant planets

You don’t need a weather scientist to know which direction the winds are blowing on Jupiter. All you need is the Hubble Space Telescope’s keen eyesight to get an up-close look at the candy-colored streaks of clouds and storms on the face of the largest planet in the solar system.

Hubble is published every year for a large visual tour of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. NASA calls this the External Planetary and Atmospheric Program, and it allows planetary scientists and astronomers on Earth to see what has and hasn’t changed in something like a cosmic weather report.

Last Thursday, NASA released images from this year’s Grand Tour. The gallery of planets, with their fast streaks, ethereal rings, giant storms and gale-force winds, testifies to nature’s infinite power to surprise and fascinate us.

Hubble Space Telescope image of Neptune, released by NASA on Thursday, November 18, 2021 (NASA via The New York Times)

NASA says the results will help scientists understand the dynamics of massive gas giant planets in our solar system and around other stars, as well as provide insights into how Earth’s atmosphere works.

And it’s nice to look at the planets, too.

The most remarkable feature among Jupiter’s cloud tops is the Great Red Spot, an anticyclone larger than Earth that has been rotating for more than 150 years at speeds of about 400 miles per hour. The new observations show that the winds at the center of the storm continue to decelerate, while the winds on the outer edges are accelerating. The spot slowly changed shape to a circle of oval shape, and a series of new storms formed in its south.

In the northern hemisphere of Saturn, it was early fall when this year Hubble took a look at the ringed planet. A mysterious six-sided cyclone has appeared around the north pole of the planet. The storm was large enough to engulf four terrestrial planets, and was first spotted by the Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s. Last year it was hard to see but this year it has reappeared.

Hubble Space Telescope image of Saturn The Hubble Space Telescope image of the planet Saturn, published by NASA on Thursday, November 18, 2021. A mysterious six-sided hurricane appeared around the north pole of the planet. (NASA via The New York Times)

Far away, it’s spring on Uranus, which orbits the Sun tilted on its side relative to the other planets. This means that its Arctic is aimed directly at the sun. As a result, the planet’s northern latitudes are exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun and glow like a light bulb. Researchers believe the brightness is caused by changes in the concentration of methane, a major component of Uranus’ atmosphere, and smog, as well as wind patterns around the pole.

Neptune beckons with the attractive blue color of the ocean. But its color comes from methane, not water. The eighth planet in the solar system is also prone to storms and areas of high pressure that look like dark mists or bruises on its surface. It was discovered in 1989 when Voyager 2 bypassed Neptune, but was not seen again until a few years later when Hubble took over his job as cosmic guardian in the 1990s.

These storms usually appear in mid-latitudes and drift to the planet’s equator, where they weaken and then disintegrate. In 2018, Hubble spotted a massive dark spot drifting south toward a tropical “kill zone”, in Neptune’s northern hemisphere.

Two years later, however, to the astonishment of astronomers and computer simulations, the storm reversed course and returned north. Moreover, the reversal coincided with the appearance of a new, slightly smaller storm called “Dark Spot Jr.” To the south – a piece of the larger vortex may have split, taking away energy and momentum as in some cosmic pool games.

“It was really exciting to see this person act like they were supposed to, and then suddenly stop and swing backwards,” Michael Wong, a research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a NASA news release. last year. “That was surprising.”

In the latest image of Neptune, the large dark spot is still to the north. But Junior has disappeared, and the entire Arctic region is darkened. Neptune meteorologists still don’t know why.

Savor these cosmic postcards for as long as you can. The Hubble Space Telescope has been there for more than 30 years, long past its planned operational life, and has had more frequent problems lately. Three times this year, the telescope has endured extended shutdowns due to software problems.

But there will likely be good news to come with the scheduled launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in December. The Webb Telescope is approximately three times larger than the Hubble Telescope. It’s designed to see infrared or “thermal” rays rather than visible wavelengths, so it can see through these planets’ clouds and fog and map the heat below, shedding light, so to speak, on how these planets function. Anyway for a while, if all goes well – and it doesn’t always go well – astronomers can have two complementary ways of understanding what’s going on there.

This is a weather report from the exoplanets. It’s windy out there, and don’t forget to wear the strongest sunscreen on Uranus.

This article originally appeared in New York times.


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