Power Up! Distant Uranus Sees A Storm Surge Of ‘Monstrous’ Proportions

by Elizabeth Howell on August 7, 2014

Huge storms on Uranus were spotted by the Keck Observatory on Aug. 5 and Aug. 6, 2014. Credit: Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley), Pat Fry (University of Wisconsin), Keck Observatory

Huge storms on Uranus were spotted by the Keck Observatory on Aug. 5 and Aug. 6, 2014. Credit: Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley), Pat Fry (University of Wisconsin), Keck Observatory

Who can imagine Uranus as a quiet planet now? The Keck Observatory caught some spectacular pictures of the gas giant undergoing a large storm surge a few days ago, which took astronomers by surprise because the planet is well past the equinox in 2007, when the sun was highest above the equator.

“We are always anxious to see that first image of the night of any planet or satellite, as we never know what it might have in store for us,” stated Imke de Pater, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley that led the research.

“This extremely bright feature we saw on UT 6 August 2014 reminds me of a similarly bright storm we saw on Uranus’s southern hemisphere during the years leading up to and at equinox.”

Astronomers say the brightest of the storms is “monstrous” and reminds them of a dissipated feature nicknamed the “Berg”, since it looked a bit like an iceberg.

These two pictures of Uranus -- one in true color (left) and the other in false color -- were compiled from images returned Jan. 17, 1986, by the narrow-angle camera of Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL

These two pictures of Uranus — one in true color (left) and the other in false color — were compiled from images returned Jan. 17, 1986, by the narrow-angle camera of Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL

The Berg, which might have been there when one of the Voyager spacecraft flew by in 1986, moved between the southern latitudes of 32 and 36 degrees between 2000 and 2005. After getting brighter in 2004, it moved towards the equator and got even stronger, where it remained until falling apart in 2009. (You can see pictures of it here.)

“The present storm is even brighter than the Berg. Its morphology is rather similar, and the team expects it may also be tied to a vortex in the deeper atmosphere,” Keck stated. Based on how bright the storm appears, researchers believe it must be reaching high into the atmosphere, perhaps approaching the tropopause (just below the stratosphere)

Source: Keck Observatory

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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