UC Berkeley astronomers, undergraduate contributor elucidate Neptune, Uranus dark spots

Two blue planets are pictured in outer space.
NASA, ESA, UC Berkeley/Courtesy

Related Posts

A team of UC Berkeley astronomers, along with an undergraduate contributor, analyzed a series of Uranus and Neptune NASA photos released in late 2018, discovering new information about the planets’ atmospheres.

Every year, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope collects images of outer planets. Many astronomers take this chance to study the distant and relatively unknown celestial bodies. One such UC Berkeley research project — the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy program, or OPAL — discovered a huge dark storm or dark vortex in Neptune’s atmosphere.

“The storm is massive, comparable to the size of the Great Dark Spot imaged by Voyager in 1989,” said Joshua Tollefson, a graduate student in the Earth and planetary sciences department working on OPAL. The reason these ‘dark spots’ are interesting is because they are extremely dynamic — they seem to pop up every three to six years before disappearing after a few years.”

Michael Wong, planetary scientist and lead of OPAL at UC Berkeley, described the dark spot as a high pressure, anticyclonic storm surrounded by bright white companion clouds likely made of methane and ice.

Storms on other giant planets, such as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, can last for decades or centuries, while storms and hurricanes on Earth last only a few days, explained Tollefson.

“We’d like to see them (the planets) more than once a year, but we’re happy to see them at all,” said Glenn Orton, senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about the difficulties and importance of studying the outer planets.

The data has been thoroughly analyzed — and not just by professors, graduate students and NASA researchers. The OPAL project also has an undergraduate contributor — campus junior Andrew Hsu.

Hsu, a double major in physics and astrophysics, has been working with Wong and the OPAL program since 2017. He analyzed the atmospheres of Neptune and Uranus with OPAL and then synthesized the information in a research paper in which he concluded that dark spots appear on Neptune every four to six years, indicating the planet’s atmospheric patterns.

Hsu’s paper will be published in The Astronomical Journal — no small feat for a junior.

“Andrew’s paper, in particular, kind of shows that OPAL is really solving the problem it set out to solve, which is to fill in these gaps and make sure we don’t have gaps in our observation process,” Wong said.

Although conclusions have been drawn from the images, campus professor of astronomy, earth and planetary sciences Imke de Pater stressed that there is still a lot to learn about planets such as Uranus and Neptune.

“We haven’t seen such an incredibly huge dark spot on Uranus ever,” de Pater said. “It really shows that we do not yet understand the dynamics in this planet’s atmosphere.”

Contact Marlena Tavernier-Fine at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @MarlenaTF_DC ‏.