Astronomers Find a Planet Like Jupiter, but It Doesn’t Have any Clouds

Can you picture Jupiter without any observable clouds or haze? It isn’t easy since Jupiter’s latitudinal cloud bands and its Great Red Spot are iconic visual features in our Solar System. Those features are caused by upswelling and descending gas, mostly ammonia. After Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s cloud forms are probably the most recognizable feature in the Solar System.

Now astronomers with the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) have found a planet similar in mass to Jupiter, but with a cloud-free atmosphere.

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These Bizarre Cloud Patterns are von Kármán’s Vortices, Caused by the air Wrapping Around Tall Islands

This is an image of some of the islands that make up the nation of Cape Verde. While most in that group of ten islands are flat, some are very tall: Fogo, Santa Antão, and São Nicolau. Those three stand well above their compatriots, with Fogo reaching an altitude of 2,829 metres (9,281 feet).

The three tall volcanic islands sometimes interact with the wind to create von Kármán vortices, also called von Kármán vortex streets.

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Did Pioneer See Phosphine in the Clouds of Venus Decades Ago?

The discovery of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere has generated a lot of interest. It has the potential to be a biosignature, though since the discovery, some researchers have thrown cold water on that idea.

But it looks, at least, like the discovery is real, and that one of NASA’s Pioneer spacecraft detected the elusive gas back in 1978. And though it’s not necessarily a biosignature, the authors of a new study think that we need to rethink the chemistry of Venus’ atmosphere.

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There’s One Cloud on Mars That’s Over 1800 km Long

Mars’ massive cloud is back.

Every year during Mars’ summer solstice, a cloud of water ice forms on the leeward side of Arsia Mons, one of Mars’ largest extinct volcanoes. The cloud can grow to be up to 1800 km (1120 miles) long. It forms each morning, then disappears the same day, only to reappear the next morning. Researchers have named it the Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud (AMEC).

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Astronomers Can Actually See the Clouds and Weather on Brown Dwarf 6.5 Light-Years Away

This artist's conception illustrates the brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026, observed by NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. Brown dwarfs are more massive and hotter than planets but lack the mass required to become stars. Image credit: NASA

Brown dwarfs are in a tough spot. Not quite a star, not quite a planet, they occupy a place between gas giants and stars. They have more mass than gas giants like Jupiter, but not enough to ignite fusion and become a star.

But astronomers still study them. How could they resist?

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Noctilucent Clouds Perform Delicate Dance for NASA’s Balloon-Cam

Noctilucent clouds, or PMC's, form high in the atmosphere above the poles. NASA launched a five-day balloon mission to observe and photograph them. Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Joy Ng

Noctilucent clouds are one of the atmosphere’s most ethereal natural wonders. They form high in the mesosphere, about 80 km (50 mi) above the Earth’s surface, and are rarely seen. In July, 2018, NASA launched a five-day balloon mission, called PMC (Polar Mesospheric Clouds) Turbo, to observe them and photograph them.

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NASA’s Aqua Satellite Watches Ships Crossing the Atlantic Ocean

Earth, when viewed from space, is a pretty spectacular thing to behold. From orbit, one can see every continent, landmass, and major feature. Weather patterns are also eerily clear from space, with everything from hurricanes to auroras appearing as a single system. On top of that, it is only from orbit that the full extent of human activity can be truly appreciated.

For instance, when one hemisphere of Earth passes from day into night, one can see the patchwork of urban development by picking out the filamentary structure of lights. And as NASA’s Aqua satellite recently demonstrated with a high-resolution image it captured over the Atlantic Ocean, ships criss-crossing the ocean can also create some beautiful patterns.

As part of the NASA-centered international Earth Observing System (EOS), the Aqua satellite was launched on May 4th, 2002, to collect information on Earth’s water cycle. Using a suite of six Earth-observing instruments, this satellite has gathered global data on ocean evaporation, water vapor in the atmosphere, clouds, precipitation, soil moisture, sea ice, land ice, and snow cover.

NASA’s Aqua Earth-observing satellite. Credit: NASA

The image was acquired on January 16th, 2018, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). Pictured in this image are ships off the coast of Portugal and Spain producing cloud trails known as ship tracks. Some of these tracks stretch for hundreds of kilometers and grow broader with distance – i.e. the narrow ends are the youngest while the broader, wavier ends are older.

These clouds form when water vapor condenses around tiny particles of pollution emitted by the ship’s exhaust. This is due to the fact that some particles generated by ships (like sulfates) are soluble in water and seeds clouds. This also causes light hitting these clouds to scatter in many directions, making them appear brighter and thicker than unpolluted maritime clouds (which are seeded by larger particles like sea salt).

As always, seeing things from space provides an incredible sense of perspective. This is especially helpful when attempting to monitor and model something as complex as Earth’s environment and humanity’s impact on it. And of course, it also allows for some breathtaking photos!

Further Reading: NASA

Two Years Ago Today: It Was a Clear Day on Pluto When New Horizons Flew By

It was two years ago this morning that we awoke to see the now iconic image of Pluto that the New Horizons spacecraft had sent to Earth during the night. You, of course, know the picture I’m talking about – the one with a clear view of the giant heart-shaped region on the distant, little world (see above).

This image was taken just 16 hours before the spacecraft would make its closest approach to Pluto. Then, during that seemingly brief flyby (after traveling nine-and-a-half years and 3 billion miles to get there), the spacecraft gathered as much data as possible and we’ve been swooning over the images and pondering the findings from New Horizons ever since.

“This is what we came for – these images, spectra and other data types that are helping us understand the origin and the evolution of the Pluto system for the first time,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told me last year. “We’re seeing that Pluto is a scientific wonderland. The images have been just magical. It’s breathtaking.”

See a stunning new video created from flbyby footage in honor of the two-year anniversary of the flyby:

All the images have shown us that Pluto is a complex world with incredible diversity, in its geology and also in its atmosphere.

While the iconic “heart” image shows a clear and cloudless view of Pluto, a later image showed incredible detail of Pluto’s hazy atmosphere, with over two dozen concentric layers that stretches more than 200 km high in Pluto’s sky.

With all those layers and all that haze, could there be clouds on Pluto too?

The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

This is a question Stern and his fellow scientists have been asking for a long time, actually, as they have been studying Pluto for decades from afar. Now with data from New Horizons, they’ve been able to look closer. While Stern and his colleagues have been discussing how they found possible clouds on Pluto for a few months, they have now detailed their findings in a paper published last month.

“Numerous planets in our solar system, including Venus, Earth, Mars, Titan, and all four of the giant planets possess atmospheres that contain clouds, i.e., discrete atmospheric condensation structures,” the team wrote in their paper. “This said, it has long been known that Pluto’s current atmosphere is not extensively cloudy at optical or infrared wavelengths.”

They explained that evidence for this came primarily from the “high amplitude and temporal stability of Pluto’s lightcurve,” however, because no high spatial resolution imagery of Pluto was possible before New Horizons, it remained to be seen if clouds occur over a small fraction of Pluto’s surface area.

But now with flyby images in hand, the team set out to do searches for clouds on Pluto, looking at all available imagery from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera, looking at both the disk of Pluto and near and on the limb. Since an automated cloud search was nearly impossible, it was all done by visual inspection of the images by the scientists.

They looked for features in the atmosphere that including brightness, fuzzy or fluffy-looking edges and isolated borders.

Seven Possible Cloud Candidates (PCCs) identified by the New Horizons team. Two of these images (3, 4) were taken by MVIC; the other five (1, 2, 5,
6, 7) were taken by LORRI. Arrows indicate each PCC. Credit: Stern et al, 2017.

In all, they found seven bright, discrete possible cloud candidates. The seven candidates share several different attributes including small size, low altitude, they all were visible either early or late in the day local time, and were only visible at oblique geometry – which is basically a sideways look from the spacecraft.

Also, several cloud candidates also coincided with brighter surface features below, so the team is still pondering the correlation.

“The seven candidates are all similar in that they are very low altitude,” Stern said last fall at the Division of Planetary Sciences meeting, “and they are all low-lying, isolated small features, so no broad cloud decks or fields. When we map them over the surface, they all lie near the terminator, so they occur near dawn or dusk. This is all suggestive they are clouds because low-lying regions and dawn or dusk provide cooler conditions where clouds may occur.”

While haze was detected as high as 220 km, the possible clouds were found at very low altitudes. Stern told Universe Today that these possible, rare condensation clouds could be made of ethane, acetylene, hydrogen cyanide or methane under the right conditions. Stern added these clouds are probably short-lived phenomena – again, likely occurring only at dawn or dusk. A day on Pluto is 6.4 days on Earth.

But all in all, they concluded that at the current time Pluto’s atmosphere is almost entirely free of clouds – in fact the dwarf planet’s sky was 99% cloud free the day that New Horizons whizzed by.

“But if there are clouds, it would mean the weather on Pluto is even more complex than we imagined,” Stern said last year.

The seven cloud candidates cannot be confirmed as clouds because none are in the region where there was stereo imaging or other available ways to cross-check it. They concluded that further modeling would be needed, but specifically a Pluto orbiter mission would be the only way to “search for clouds more thoroughly than time and space and was possible during the brief reconnaissance flyby by New Horizons.”

If you’re dreaming of a Pluto orbiter, you can read about some possibilities of how to do it in our article from May of this year.

Grab Your Smartphone And Become A Citizen Scientist For NASA

NASA's new app, the Globe Observer, will allow users to collect observations of clouds, and engage in a little citizen science. Image: NASA GLOBE Observer

It’s long been humanity’s dream to do something useful with our smartphones. Sure, we can take selfies, and post pictures of our meals, but true smartphone greatness has eluded us. Until now, that is.

Thanks to NASA, we can now do some citizen science with our ubiquitous devices.

For over 20 years, and in schools in over 110 countries, NASA’s Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program has helped students understand their local environment in a global context. Now NASA has released the GLOBE Observer app, which allows users to capture images of clouds in their local environment, and share them with scientists studying the Earth’s climate.

“With the launch of GLOBE Observer, the GLOBE program is expanding beyond the classroom to invite everyone to become a citizen Earth scientist,” said Holli Riebeek Kohl, NASA lead of GLOBE Observer. The app will initially be used to capture cloud observations and images because they’re such an important part of the global climate system. But eventually, GLOBE Observer will also be used to observe land cover, and to identify types of mosquito larvae.

GLOBE has two purposes. One is to collect solid scientific data, the other is to increase users’ awareness of their own environments. “Once you collect environmental observations with the app, they are sent to the GLOBE data and information system for use by scientists and students studying the Earth,” said Kohl. “You can also use these observations for your own investigations and interact with a vibrant community of individuals from around the world who care about Earth system science and our global environment.”

Clouds are a dynamic part of the Earth’s climate system. Depending on their type, their altitude, and even the size of their water droplets, they either trap heat in the atmosphere, or reflect sunlight back into space. We have satellites to observe and study clouds, but they have their limitations. An army of citizen scientists observing their local cloud population will add a lot to the efforts of the satellites.

“Clouds are one of the most important factors in understanding how climate is changing now and how it’s going to change in the future,” Kohl said. “NASA studies clouds from satellites that provide either a top view or a vertical slice of the clouds. The ground-up view from citizen scientists is valuable in validating and understanding the satellite observations. It also provides a more complete picture of clouds around the world.”

The observations collected by GLOBE users could end up as part of NASA's Earth Observatory, which tracks the cloud fraction around the world. Image: NASA/NASA Earth Observation.
The observations collected by GLOBE users could end up as part of NASA’s Earth Observatory, which tracks the cloud fraction around the world. Image: NASA/NASA Earth Observation.

The GLOBE team has issued a challenge to any interested citizen scientists who want to use the app. Over the next two weeks, the team is hoping that users will make ground observations of clouds at the same time as a cloud-observing satellite passes overhead. “We really encourage all citizen scientists to look up in the sky and take observations while the satellites are passing over through Sept. 14,” said Kohl.

The app makes this easy to do. It informs users when a satellite will be passing overhead, so we can do a quick observation at that time. We can also use Facebook or Twitter to view daily maps of the satellite’s path.

“Ground measurements are critical to validate measurements taken from space through remote sensing,” said Erika Podest, an Earth scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who is working with GLOBE data. “There are some places in the world where we have no ground data, so citizen scientists can greatly contribute to advancing our knowledge this important part of the Earth system.”

The app itself seems pretty straightforward. I checked for upcoming satellite flyovers and was notified of 6 flyovers that day. It’s pretty quick and easy to step outside and take an observation at one of those times.

I did a quick observation from the street in front of my house and it took about 2 minutes. To identify cloud types, you just match what you see with in-app photos of the different types of clouds. Then you estimate the percentage of cloud cover, or specify if the sky is obscured by blowing snow, or fog, or something else. You can also add pictures, and the app guides you in aiming the camera properly.

The GLOBE Observer app is easy to use, and kind of fun. It’s simple enough to fit a quick cloud observation in between selfies and meal pictures.

Download it and try it out.

You can download the IOS version from the App Store, and the Android version from Google Play.