Is it time to head back to Neptune and its moon Triton? It might be. After all, we have some unfinished business there.
It’s been 30 years since NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past the gas giant and its largest moon, and that flyby posed more questions than it answered. Maybe we’ll get some answers in 2038, when the positions of Jupiter, Neptune, and Triton will be just right for a mission.
Oh Planet Nine, when will you stop toying with us?
Whether you call it Planet Nine, Planet X, the Perturber, Jehoshaphat, “Phattie,” or any of the other proposed names—either serious or flippant—this scientific back and forth over its existence is getting exhausting.
Is this what it was like when they were arguing whether Earth is flat or round?
Never seen Neptune? It’s time you should, and this weekend offers a fine time to try, as the faintest planet in the solar system approaches the brightest in the dusk sky, for a splendid conjunction of the pair.
Like a long-married couple accustomed to each other’s kitchen habits, two of Neptune’s moons are masters at sharing space without colliding. And though both situations may appear odd to an observer, there’s a certain dance-like quality to them both.
In the coming years, NASA has some bold plans to build on the success of the New Horizons mission. Not only did this spacecraft make history by conducting the first-ever flyby of Pluto in 2015, it has since followed up on that by making the first encounter in history with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – 2014 MU69 (aka. Ultima Thule).
Given the wealth of data and stunning images that resulted from these events (which NASA scientists are still processing), other similarly-ambitious missions to explore the outer Solar System are being considered. For example, there is the proposal for the Trident spacecraft, a Discovery-class mission that would reveal things about Neptune’s largest moon, Triton.
Moons have the coolest names, don’t they? Proteus, Titan, and Callisto. Phobos, Deimos, and Encephalitis. But not Io. That’s a stupid name for a moon. There’s only two ways to pronounce it and we still get it wrong. Anyway, now we have another cool one: Hippocamp!
Okay, maybe the new name isn’t that cool. It sounds like a summer camp for overweight artiodactyls. But whatever. It’s not every day our Solar System gets a new moon.
Like Earth, Uranus and Neptune have season and experience changes in weather patterns as a result. But unlike Earth, the seasons on these planets last for years rather than months, and weather patterns occur on a scale that is unimaginable by Earth standards. A good example is the storms that have been observed in Neptune and Uranus’ atmosphere, which include Neptune’s famous Great Dark Spot.
During its yearly routine of monitoring Uranus and Neptune, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) recently provided updated observations of both planets’ weather patterns. In addition to spotting a new and mysterious storm on Neptune, Hubble provided a fresh look at a long-lived storm around Uranus’ north pole. These observations are part of Hubble‘s long-term mission to improve our understanding of the outer planets.
In 2007, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) completed work on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile. This ground-based telescope is the world’s most advanced optical instrument, consisting of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors (measuring 8.2 meters in diameter) and four movable 1.8-meter diameter Auxiliary Telescopes.
Recently, the VLT was upgraded with a new instrument known as the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE), a panoramic integral-field spectrograph that works at visible wavelengths. Thanks to the new adaptive optics mode that this allows for (known as laser tomography) the VLT was able to recently acquire some images of Neptune, star clusters and other astronomical objects with impeccable clarity.
In astronomy, adaptive optics refers to a technique where instruments are able to compensate for the blurring effect caused by Earth’s atmosphere, which is a serious issue when it comes to ground-based telescopes. Basically, as light passes through our atmosphere, it becomes distorted and causes distant objects to become blurred (which is why stars appear to twinkle when seen with the naked eye).
One solution to this problem is to deploy telescopes into space, where atmospheric disturbance is not an issue. Another is to rely on advanced technology that can artificially correct for the distortions, thus resulting in much clearer images. One such technology is the MUSE instrument, which works with an adaptive optics unit called a GALACSI – a subsystem of the Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF).
The instrument allows for two adaptive optics modes – the Wide Field Mode and the Narrow Field Mode. Whereas the former corrects for the effects of atmospheric turbulence up to one km above the telescope over a comparatively wide field of view, the Narrow Field mode uses laser tomography to correct for almost all of the atmospheric turbulence above the telescope to create much sharper images, but over a smaller region of the sky.
This consists of four lasers that are fixed to the fourth Unit Telescope (UT4) beaming intense orange light into the sky, simulating sodium atoms high in the atmosphere and creating artificial “Laser Guide Stars”. Light from these artificial stars is then used to determine the turbulence in the atmosphere and calculate corrections, which are then sent to the deformable secondary mirror of the UT4 to correct for the distorted light.
Using this Narrow Field Mode, the VLT was able to capture remarkably sharp test images of the planet Neptune, distant star clusters (such as the globular star cluster NGC 6388), and other objects. In so doing, the VLT demonstrated that its UT4 mirror is able to reach the theoretical limit of image sharpness and is no longer limited by the effects of atmospheric distortion.
This essentially means that it is now possible for the VLT to capture images from the ground that are sharper than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The results from UT4 will also help engineers to make similar adaptations to the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which will also rely on laser tomography to conduct its surveys and accomplish its scientific goals.
These goals include the study of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the centers of distant galaxies, jets from young stars, globular clusters, supernovae, the planets and moons of the Solar System, and extra-solar planets. In short, the use of adaptive optics – as tested and confirmed by the VLT’s MUSE – will allow astronomers to use ground-based telescopes to study the properties of astronomical objects in much greater detail than ever before.
In addition, other adaptive optics systems will benefit from work with the Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF) in the coming years. These include the ESO’s GRAAL, a ground layer adaptive optics module that is already being used by the Hawk-I infrared wide-field imager. In a few years, the powerful Enhanced Resolution Imager and Spectrograph (ERIS) instrument will also be added to the VLT.
Between these upgrades and the deployment of next-generation space telescopes in the coming years (like the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be deploying in 2021), astronomers expect to bringing a great deal more of the Universe “into focus”. And what they see is sure to help resolve some long-standing mysteries, and will probably create a whole lot more!
And be sure to enjoy these videos of the images obtained by the VLT of Neptune and NGC 6388, courtesy of the ESO:
Back in the late 1980’s, Voyager 2 was the first spacecraft to capture images of the giant storms in Neptune’s atmosphere. Before then, little was known about the deep winds cycling through Neptune’s atmosphere. But Hubble has been turning its sharp eye towards Neptune over the years to study these storms, and over the past couple of years, it’s watched one enormous storm petering out of existence.
“It looks like we’re capturing the demise of this dark vortex, and it’s different from what well-known studies led us to expect.” – Michael H. Wong, University of California at Berkeley.
When we think of storms on the other planets in our Solar System, we automatically think of Jupiter. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a fixture in our Solar System, and has lasted 200 years or more. But the storms on Neptune are different: they’re transient.
The storm on Neptune moves in an anti-cyclonic direction, and if it were on Earth, it would span from Boston to Portugal. Neptune has a much deeper atmosphere than Earth—in fact it’s all atmosphere—and this storm brings up material from deep inside. This gives scientists a chance to study the depths of Neptune’s atmosphere without sending a spacecraft there.
The first question facing scientists is ‘What is the storm made of?’ The best candidate is a chemical called hydrogen sulfide (H2S). H2S is a toxic chemical that stinks like rotten eggs. But particles of H2S are not actually dark, they’re reflective. Joshua Tollefson from the University of California at Berkeley, explains: “The particles themselves are still highly reflective; they are just slightly darker than the particles in the surrounding atmosphere.”
“We have no evidence of how these vortices are formed or how fast they rotate.” – Agustín Sánchez-Lavega, University of the Basque Country in Spain.
But beyond guessing what chemical the spot might me made of, scientists don’t know much else. “We have no evidence of how these vortices are formed or how fast they rotate,” said Agustín Sánchez-Lavega from the University of the Basque Country in Spain. “It is most likely that they arise from an instability in the sheared eastward and westward winds.”
There’ve been predictions about how storms on Neptune should behave, based on work done in the past. The expectation was that storms like this would drift toward the equator, then break up in a burst of activity. But this dark storm is on its own path, and is defying expectations.
“We thought that once the vortex got too close to the equator, it would break up and perhaps create a spectacular outburst of cloud activity.” – Michael H. Wong, University of California at Berkeley.
“It looks like we’re capturing the demise of this dark vortex, and it’s different from what well-known studies led us to expect,” said Michael H. Wong of the University of California at Berkeley, referring to work by Ray LeBeau (now at St. Louis University) and Tim Dowling’s team at the University of Louisville. “Their dynamical simulations said that anticyclones under Neptune’s wind shear would probably drift toward the equator. We thought that once the vortex got too close to the equator, it would break up and perhaps create a spectacular outburst of cloud activity.”
Rather than going out in some kind of notable burst of activity, this storm is just fading away. And it’s also not drifting toward the equator as expected, but is making its way toward the south pole. Again, the inevitable comparison is with Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (GRS).
The GRS is held in place by the prominent storm bands in Jupiter’s atmosphere. And those bands move in alternating directions, constraining the movement of the GRS. Neptune doesn’t have those bands, so it’s thought that storms on Neptune would tend to drift to the equator, rather than toward the south pole.
This isn’t the first time that Hubble has been keeping an eye on Neptune’s storms. The Space Telescope has also looked at storms on Neptune in 1994 and 1996. The video below tells the story of Hubble’s storm watching mission.
The images of Neptune’s storms are from the Hubble Outer Planets Atmosphere Legacy (OPAL) program. OPAL gathers long-term baseline images of the outer planets to help us understand the evolution and atmospheres of the gas giants. Images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are being taken with a variety of filters to form a kind of time-lapse database of atmospheric activity on the four gas planets.