Hubble Discovers a Dark Cloud in the Atmosphere of Uranus

September 28, 2006
Hubble Discovers a Dark Cloud in the Atmosphere of Uranus
Credit: NASA, ESA, L. Sromovsky and P. Fry (University of Wisconsin), H. Hammel (Space Science Institute), and K. Rages (SETI Institute)

Just as we near the end of the hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean, winds whirl and clouds churn 2 billion miles away in the atmosphere of Uranus, forming a dark vortex large enough to engulf two-thirds of the United States.

Lawrence Sromovsky of the University of Wisconsin-Madison leads a team that used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to take the first definitive images of a dark spot on Uranus. The elongated feature measures 1,100 miles by 1,900 miles (1,700 kilometers by 3,000 kilometers).

There have been prior unconfirmed sightings of dark spots on Uranus, including sketches made in the early 1900s, low-contrast ultraviolet Voyager spacecraft flyby images in 1986, and near-infrared observations taken from a ground-based observatory in 1993. However, no other Hubble images taken almost every summer from 1994 through early 2006 have shown such a dark spot. This indicates that the current dark disturbance probably formed very recently, researchers said.

Although rare on Uranus, dark spots have been frequently observed on Neptune. Uranus is similar in size and atmospheric composition to Neptune, but it has not appeared to have as active an atmosphere. Recently, however, Uranus's atmosphere has shown an increase in activity.

The development of a dark spot may be a signal of the oncoming uranian northern spring, said researchers. Uranus is approaching its December 2007 equinox, when the Sun will shine directly over the equator. "We have hypothesized that Uranus might become more Neptune-like as it approached its equinox," said team member Heidi B. Hammel of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. "The sudden appearance of this unusual dark feature suggests we might be right."

The dark spot was detected at a latitude of 27 degrees in Uranus's northern hemisphere, which is just now becoming fully exposed to sunlight after many years of being in shadow. Astronomers are keenly interested in how strongly and quickly the atmosphere of Uranus seems to be responding to seasonal sunlight changes.

Uranus's rotation axis is tilted almost parallel to its orbital plane, such that the planet appears to be rotating on its side. This sideways orientation leads to extreme seasons during the planet's 84-year path around the Sun.

This three-wavelength composite image was taken with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys on August 23, 2006. The research team found the dark spot again on August 24. The inset image shows a magnified view of the spot with enhanced contrast. Uranus's north pole is near the 3 o'clock position in this image. The bright band in the southern hemisphere is at 45 degrees south.

Source: Space Telescope Science Institute

Explore further: Five in a row—the planets align in the night sky

Related Stories

Five in a row—the planets align in the night sky

October 12, 2018

For the second time this year, the five brightest planets can be seen at the same time. You can catch them by looking towards the western sky after sunset. The planets will form a line rising up from the horizon.

Uranus' moon Titania

July 6, 2015

Like all of the Solar Systems' gas giants, Uranus has an extensive system of moons. In fact, astronomers can now account for 27 moons in orbit around Uranus. Of these, none are greater in size, mass, or surface area than ...

Clues revealed about hidden interior of Uranus

November 14, 2014

(Phys.org) —Long believed to be one of the blandest regions of any of the giant gas planets, the southern hemisphere of Uranus indicates a flurry of previously unknown atmospheric phenomena, hinting at an unusual feature ...

Uranus may have two undiscovered moons

October 24, 2016

NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Uranus 30 years ago, but researchers are still making discoveries from the data it gathered then. A new study led by University of Idaho researchers suggests there could be two tiny, previously ...

Mission to mysterious Uranus

October 12, 2011

Scientists want to send an orbiter and probe to the ice giant planet Uranus, but do the resources exist to support such an ambitious project?

Recommended for you

NASA Learns More About Interstellar Visitor 'Oumuamua

November 14, 2018

In November 2017, scientists pointed NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope toward the object known as 'Oumuamua—the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system. The infrared Spitzer was one of many telescopes pointed ...

Gravitational waves from a merged hyper-massive neutron star

November 14, 2018

For the first time astronomers have detected gravitational waves from a merged, hyper-massive neutron star. The scientists, Maurice van Putten of Sejong University in South Korea, and Massimo della Valle of the Osservatorio ...

The dance of the small galaxies that surround the Milky Way

November 14, 2018

An international team led by researchers from the IAC used data from the ESA satellite Gaia to measure the motion of 39 dwarf galaxies. This data gives information on the dynamics of these galaxies, their histories and their ...

Galaxies like Russian dolls

November 13, 2018

Jairo Méndez Abreu and Adriana de Lorenzo-Cáceres, researchers at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), have discovered a peanut-shaped structure in the inner bar of a double-barred galaxy close to the Milky ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.