Dark Storm Brewing On Neptune — Hubble Spots Dark Vortex ‘The Size Of U.S.’ [Video]

There is a dark storm brewing on Neptune, according to Science World Report and a recent press release by NASA. New images the Hubble Space Telescope picked up show a huge dark spot that is the size of the U.S. The images captured by Hubble are the first to show a dark storm brewing on Neptune in the 21st century. The images also show that the dark storm also has bright “companion” clouds, which form when gas is frozen into methane, above the storm. Mike Wong, an astronomer at the University of California, described the cloud formations.

“Dark vortices coast through the atmosphere like huge, lens-shaped gaseous mountains. And the companion clouds are similar to so-called orographic clouds that appear as pancake shaped features lingering over mountains on Earth.”

The clouds on the giant ice planet were first discovered by scientists last year in July, but last month in May the dark storm vortex was confirmed in images and data that were captured by Hubble. Though this is the first time the dark storm vortex was spotted in this century, it is actually the third time scientists have noticed a dark spot on the planet. The first time was in 1989, when the Voyager 2 flew by Neptune and captured photos of a dark cloud in the southern hemisphere of Neptune. The second time was in 1994 when Hubble spotted another dark spot.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor explained how the clouds in the dark storm vortex were formed – “when the vortices disturb ambient air and push it up into the atmosphere, where it freezes into what scientists believe are frozen methane crystals,” according to NASA. When the Voyager 2 photographed the first dark spot, it was a massive blotch in the cold, gaseous atmosphere of Neptune dubbed the Great Dark Spot by astronomers then.

The Great Dark Spot eventually disappeared but other “freckles” have popped up over the last several decades. The newest storm discovered brewing on Neptune measures about 3,000 miles across, according to the website Space. The Space website said that the Hubble’s Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project was started to obtain global maps of the outer residents of the solar system each year. The Hubble was turned toward Neptune in September 2015 by researchers. Wong and his team used OPAL’s map to look for a dark spot near the clouds and when they looked at the planet on May 16, with the Hubble telescope, they confirmed the storm vortex.

The Hubble telescope is the only telescope that has resolution capable of identifying weather features on Neptune and it has confirmed that the dark vortex has been there since the clouds were discovered. When the first two dark vortices were discovered, they were visible in an array of sizes and shapes. The dark storm spots can wander across the planet and may speed up or slow down. Compared to similar storms on Jupiter, where atmospheric disturbances may last for decades, the Neptune storm vortices’ timescales are much shorter.

The newest discovery of the dark storm that is brewing on Neptune will help astronomers understand how the vortices are formed, how they move around the planet and how they interact with the environment, according to Joshua Tollefson, a doctoral student at Berkeley who is collaborating on the team with Wong. The measurements of the dark vortex should also help the researchers understand Neptune’s atmosphere as well. The NASA press release also mentions that Tollefson was recently awarded a prestigious NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship that will allow him to study Neptune’s atmosphere.

What are your thoughts on the discovery of a “dark storm brewing” on Neptune? Please comment below.

[Photo by NASA via Getty Images]