Weather Forecasting on Mars Likely to be Trickier Than on Earth

Predicting the weather here on Earth is never an easy thing, but predicting it on Mars may be ever trickier. Such is the argument presented by a recent study concerning “macroweather” patterns on the Red Planet, a new regime for understanding how planetary environments work.

When it comes to describing the climate of a planet, two important concepts come into play. First, there’s weather, which covers day-to-day changes due to fluctuations in the atmosphere. Second, there’s climate, which is more stable and subject to change over the course of decades. Macroweather, the latest addition to the game, describes the relatively stable periods that exist between short-term weather and long-term climate.

For those of us dwelling here on planet Earth, these are familiar concepts. But researchers say this same three-part pattern applies to atmospheric conditions on Mars. The results of a new paper, published today in Geophysical Research Letters also show that the Sun plays a major role in determining macroweather.

Several dust devils cross a plain in this animation of a series of images acquired by NASA's Mars Rover Spirit in May, 2005. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS)
Several dust devils cross a plain in this animation of a series of images acquired by NASA’s Mars Rover Spirit in May, 2005. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS)

The scientists chose to study Mars because of the wealth of data it has provided in recent decades, which they then used to test their theory that a transitional “macroweather” regime exists on a planet other than Earth. They used information collected from the Viking Mars lander mission from the 1970s and 1980s, and more recent data from the Mars Global Surveyor.

By taking into account how the sun heats Mars, as well as the thickness of the planet’s atmosphere, the scientists predicted that temperatures and wind would fluctuate on Mars similar to how they fluctuate on Earth. However, this transition from weather to macroweather would take place over 1.8 Martian days (about two Earth days), compared with a week to 10 days here on Earth.

“Our analysis of the data from Mars confirmed this prediction quite accurately,” said Shaun Lovejoy, a physics professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and lead author of the paper. “This adds to evidence, from studies of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, that the sun plays a central role in shaping the transition from short-term weather fluctuations to macroweather.”

Early Spring Dust Storms at the North Pole of Mars. Early spring typically brings dust storms to northern polar Mars. As the north polar cap begins to thaw, the temperature difference between the cold frost region and recently thawed surface results in swirling winds. The choppy dust clouds of several dust storms are visible in this mosaic of images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft in 2002. The white polar cap is frozen carbon dioxide. (NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)
Early Spring Dust Storms at the North Pole of Mars, taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft in 2002. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

The findings also indicate that weather on Mars can be predicted with some skill only two days in advance, compared to 10 days on Earth.

“We’re going to have a very hard time predicting the weather on Mars beyond two days given what we have found in weather records there,” said co-author Jan-Peter Muller from the University College London Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the UK, “which could prove tricky for the European lander and rover.”

This research promises to advance scientists’ understanding of the dynamics of Earth’s own atmosphere, and could potentially provide insights into the weather of Venus, Saturn’s moon Titan, and possibly the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

As always, in learning about other planets and their climates, scientists are finding that the planets of our Solar System may have more in common with Earth than previously thought. Because of this, studying these other worlds will inevitably help us to better understand our own.

Further Reading: AGU, McGill

Extreme Weather is Linked to Global Warming, a New Study Suggests

Extreme weather is becoming much more common. Heat waves and heavy rains are escalating, food crops are being damaged, human beings are being displaced due to flooding and animals are migrating toward the poles or going extinct.

Although it has been postulated that these extreme weather events may be due to climate change, a new study has found much better evidence.

The research shows blocking patterns — high-pressure systems that become immobile for days or even weeks, causing extreme heat waves and torrential rain — may have doubled in summers over the last decade.

“Since 2000, we have seen a cluster of these events,” lead author Dim Doumou told The Gaurdian earlier this month. “When these high-altitude waves become quasi-stationary, then we see more extreme weather at the surface. It is especially noticeable for heat extremes.”

It was a blocking pattern that led to the heat wave in Alaska in 2013, and to the devastating floods in Colorado last summer.

These blocking patterns are associated with the jet stream, the fast flowing winds high in Earth’s atmosphere at latitudes between 30 and 60 degrees. Sometimes the flow weakens, and the winds can dip down into more southern latitudes. These excursions lead to blocking patterns.

And the jet stream is becoming “wavier,” with steeper troughs and higher ridges.

The climatologists analyzed 35 years of wind data amassed from satellites, ships, weather stations, and meteorological balloons. They found that a warming Arctic creates and amplifies the conditions that lead to jet stream excursions, therefore raising the chances for long-duration extreme events, like droughts, floods, and heat waves.

That said the climatologists were unable to see a direct causal link between climate change and extreme weather. Ordinarily we think about “cause” in a simple sense in which one thing fully brings about another. But the Colorado floods, for example, were partially caused by moisture from the tropics, a blocking pattern, and past wildfires that increased the risk of runoff.

So there is a difference between “direct causation” and “systematic causation.” The latter is not direct, but it is no less real. In this study, the team noticed that the rise in blocking patterns correlates closely with the extra heating being delivered to the Arctic by climate change. Statistically speaking, the two seem to go hand in hand.

But the team does hypothesize a direct causal link. The jet streams are driven by the difference in temperature between the poles and the equator. So because the Arctic is warming more quickly than lower latitudes, the temperature difference is declining, providing less energy for the jet stream and causing it to meander.

Although the study shows a correlation — not causation — between more frequent blocking patterns (and therefore extreme weather) and Arctic warming, it is a solid step forward in understanding how the two are related.

The article has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS).

To see why Universe Today writes about climate change, please read a past article on the subject.

Watch Out Japan! Super Typhoon Neoguri is ENORMOUS – As Seen from ISS

“Supertyphoon Neoguri is ENORMOUS” says Alexander Gerst, ESA’s German astronaut currently serving aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as he observes the monster storm swirling below on our Home Planet.

“Watch Out Japan!” added Gerst while he and his crewmates working aboard the ISS send back breathtaking imagery of the gigantic super typhoon heading towards Japan.

Neoguri is currently lashing the Japanese island of Okinawa with powerful damaging winds of over 125 mph and heavy downpours of flooding rain.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center or JTWC reports that Neoguri is creating large and dangerous swells with wave heights to 37 feet (11.2 meters).

CNN reports today, July 8, that over 600,000 people have been told to evacuate and over 100,000 already have no power. Gusts have reached 212 kph (132 mph),

“Supertyphoon Neoguri did not even fit into our fisheye lens view. I have never seen anything like this.” Taken from the ISS on 8 July 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst
“Supertyphoon Neoguri did not even fit into our fisheye lens view. I have never seen anything like this.” Taken from the ISS on 8 July 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst

The storm is so big it could not even be captured in a single image taken today using the astronauts fisheye lens on the ISS.

“Supertyphoon Neoguri did not even fit into our fisheye lens view. I have never seen anything like this,” reports Gerst today, July 8.

And the worst may be yet to come as Neoguri is forecast to make landfall on Kyushu, the southernmost island of the Japanese mainland and home to more than 13 million people after 0000 UTC on July 10 (8 p.m. EDT on July 9).

Super Typhoon Neoguri formed in the western Pacific Ocean south-southeast of Guam on July 3, 2014, according to NASA.

ISS above Supertyphoon Neoguri. Taken from the ISS on 7 July 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst
ISS above Supertyphoon Neoguri. Taken from the ISS on 7 July 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst

By July 5 it had maximum sustained winds near 110 knots (127 mph).

The NASA and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission or TRMM satellite passed over the typhoon on Monday, July 7. It was classified as a category four typhoon on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale with sustained winds estimates at 135 knots (155 mph), says NASA.

The eerie looking eye is 65 kilometers (40 miles) in diameter. See photo.

“Scary. The sunlight is far from reaching down the abyss of Neoguri's 65 km-wide eye.” Taken from the ISS on 8 July 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst
“Scary. The sunlight is far from reaching down the abyss of Neoguri’s 65 km-wide eye.” Taken from the ISS on 8 July 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst

It has since decreased slightly in intensity to a category three typhoon.

According to the Japanese Meteorological Agency Neoguri is currently located at 28°55′ (N) and E125°50′ (E).

At 5:02 PM EDT today, July 8, NASA just reported that the ISS flew directly over Neoguri and may have been visible in the new live HDEV cameras residing on the stations truss.

“Neoguri has been literally cut in half. Unreal.”  Taken from the ISS on 8 July 2014. Credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman
“Neoguri has been literally cut in half. Unreal.” Taken from the ISS on 8 July 2014. Credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ISS, OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Path of Supertyphoon Neoguri. Credit: Japanese Meteorological Agency
Path of Supertyphoon Neoguri. Credit: Japanese Meteorological Agency

Mountains Soar Above the Appalachians in this Dramatic NASA Photo

Except these are mountains made of water, not rock! Taken from an altitude of 65,000 feet, the image above shows enormous storm cells swirling high over the mountains of western North Carolina on May 23, 2014. It was captured from one of NASA’s high-altitide ER-2 aircraft during a field research flight as part of the Integrated Precipitation and Hydrology Experiment (IPHEx) campaign.

The photo was NASA’s Image of the Day for June 19, 2014.

Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite (NASA/Britt Griswold)
Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite (NASA/Britt Griswold)

For six weeks the IPHEx campaign team from NASA, NOAA, and Duke University set up ground stations and flew ER-2 missions over the southeastern U.S., collecting data on weather and rainfall that will be used to supplement and calibrate data gathered by the GPM Core Observatory launched in February.

By the time its role in IPHEx was completed on June 16, the Lockheed ER-2 aircraft had flown more than 95 hours during 18 flights over North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. Its high-altitude capabilities allow researchers to safely fly above storm systems, taking measurements like a satellite would.

Learn more about the ER-2 flights here, and read more about the IPHEx campaign on Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering site here.

Source: NASA

NASA's ER-2 at the Armstrong Flight Research Center's Building 703 in Palmdale, CA (NASA / Tom Tschida)
NASA’s ER-2 at the Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Building 703 in Palmdale, CA (NASA/Tom Tschida)

Deadly Monster Winter Storm Batters US Eastern Seaboard – More Snow and Ice on the Way!

This visible image of the winter storm over the U.S. south and East Coast was taken by NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite on Feb. 13 at 1455 UTC/9:45 a.m. EST. Snow covered ground can be seen over the Great Lakes region and Ohio Valley. Image Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project
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A deadly monster storm is battering virtually the entire US Eastern seaboard today, Thursday, Feb. 13, as it moves from the Southeast to the Northeast and into the New England states, wreaking havoc and causing miserable weather conditions for over 100 million Americas.

This afternoon, NASA and NOAA published a new image taken by a GOES satellite that showed the extent of the clouds associated with the massive winter storm over the US East Coast – see above and below.

Blizzard, white out and slippery conditions have already caused more than 18 deaths.

The killer storm has brought relentless waves of snow, sleet and ice over the past two days covering a vast swath stretching from inland to coastal areas as it moved up from the southern to northern states.

More than a foot of snow has already fallen in many areas today stretching from the Mid-Atlantic into the entire Northeast region.

Several states have declared states of emergency.

This is the season’s 12th snow storm. In many Northeast localities, the accumulated snowfall totals are three times the normal average. As a result many municipalities are running out of road salt.

And to add insult to injury, much more icy snow is falling overnight into Friday on top of the massive existing mounds and piles of frozen ice and snow that’s accumulated over the past few weeks of subfreezing temperatures.

There are also predictions for patches of “thunder snow” — which is a snow storm mixed with thunder and lightning!

Full disk image of the winter storm over the U.S. south and East Coast was taken by NOAA's GOES-13 satellite on Feb. 13 at 1455 UTC/9:45 a.m. EST. Credit:  NASA/NOAA GOES Project
Full disk image of the winter storm over the U.S. south and East Coast was taken by NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite on Feb. 13 at 1455 UTC/9:45 a.m. EST. Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

Incredibly, another round of snow is forecast for Saturday.

Much of the I-95 corridor where I also live has been especially hard hit.

The image above was created from data captured by NOAA’s GOES-East satellite today, Feb. 13 at 1455 UTC/9:45 a.m. EST by a team from the NASA/NOAA’s GOES Project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“The clouds and fallen snow data from NOAA’s GOES-East satellite were overlaid on a true-color image of land and ocean created by data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer or MODIS instrument that flies aboard NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites,” said NASA in a statement.

An eight months pregnant 36 year old women was tragically killed in New York City accident today by a snowplow. Thank God the unborn baby was saved and delivered by cesarean section.

The storm has caused thousands of traffic accidents and several deaths.

Video Caption: This animation of NOAA’s GOES satellite data shows the progression of the major winter storm in the U.S. south from Feb. 10 at 1815 UTC/1:15 p.m. EST to Feb. 12 to 1845 UTC/1:45 p.m. EST. Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project, Dennis Chesters

Hundreds of thousands of customers have lost power due to fallen tree limbs on exposed power lines, mostly in the southeast. In recent days, hundreds of thousands of us here in the Northeast lost power after a severe ice storm.

Mountains of snow inundate the Northeast. Credit: Mark Usciak
Mountains of snow inundate the Northeast. Credit: Mark Usciak

Most of those affected were left with no heat in subfreezing temperatures. It’s definitely no fun when you can see you exhaled breath – indoors.

Many school districts were closed today. But not in NYC where the new Mayor Bill DeBlasio kept schools open, and faced a hail of criticism – including from NBC News weatherman Al Roker.

Over 6500 airplane flights have been cancelled, stranding over a half million people.

So after days of shoveling, even more is on tap for the morning. Be careful, pace yourself and don’t overdo it – as several people died from heart attacks digging out the heavy slushy mess


Here is this evenings forecast (Feb 13) from the National Weather Service (NWS):

STORM SUMMARY NUMBER 09 FOR SOUTHERN PLAINS TO EAST COAST WINTER STORM
NWS WEATHER PREDICTION CENTER COLLEGE PARK MD – – 1000 PM EST THU FEB 13 2014

…LOW PRESSURE CENTER HAS MOVED OFF THE NEW JERSEY COAST AND IS
RAPIDLY INTENSIFYING…HEAVY SNOW BANDS IMPACTING INTERIOR
NORTHEAST AND I 95 CORRIDOR…WINDS INCREASING ACROSS THE AFFECTED
REGION…

WINTER STORM WARNINGS AND WINTER WEATHER ADVISORIES ARE IN EFFECT
FOR THE NORTHERN MID ATLANTIC AND NORTHEAST….

FOR A DETAILED GRAPHICAL DEPICTION OF THE LATEST
WATCHES…WARNINGS AND ADVISORIES…PLEASE SEE WWW.WEATHER.GOV

AT 900 PM EST…THE MAIN CENTER OF A RAPIDLY INTENSIFYING LOW
PRESSURE SYSTEM WITH ESTIMATED CENTRAL PRESSURE OF 986 MB…29.12
INCHES…WAS LOCATED JUST EAST OF THE SOUTHERN NEW JERSEY COAST.
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR AND SURFACE OBSERVATIONS
INDICATED THAT OVER THE PAST FEW HOURS…A BAND OF HEAVY SNOW WAS
IMPACTING CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA ACROSS NORTHERN NEW ENGLAND TO
NORTHERN MAINE. MEANWHILE…ANOTHER BAND OF MODERATE TO HEAVY
SNOW WAS LOCATED ALONG THE I 95 CORRIDOR FROM WASHINGTON DC TO NEW YORK CITY. EAST OF I 95 THE PRECIPITATION TYPE IS MAINLY RAIN…BUT A CHANGEOVER BACK TO SNOW IS EXPECTED.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Recent ice and snow storms caused hundreds of thousands to lose power and heat in the Northeast. Credit: Ken Kremer
Recent ice and snow storms caused hundreds of thousands to lose power and heat in the Northeast in subfreezing temperatures. Credit: Ken Kremer
Mountains of snow inundate the Northeast. Credit: Mark Usciak
Mountains of snow inundate the Northeast. Credit: Mark Usciak

Satellite Image of the “Polar Vortex” Over the US

If you live in the north and eastern part of the US, you’re probably experiencing some frigid weather. You’re probably also hearing people talk about something called a “polar vortex.”

Just what is a polar vortex and why is it making the temperatures so cold?

This image was captured by NOAA’s GOES-East satellite on Jan. 6, 2014, at 11:01 a.m. EST (1601 UTC). A frontal system that brought rain and snow to the US East coast is seen draped from north to south, and behind the front lies the clearer skies bitter cold air associated with the polar vortex. Also visible in the image is snow on the ground in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri. The clouds over Texas are associated with a low pressure system centered over western Oklahoma that is part of the cold front connected to the movement of the polar vortex.

NASA explains that the polar vortex is a “whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.”

Weather reports say the northern polar vortex was pushing southward over western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, and was bringing frigid temperatures to half of the continental United States. It is expected to move northward back over Canada toward the end of the week.

More about the polar vortex:

Both the northern and southern polar vortexes are located in the middle and upper troposphere (lowest level of the atmosphere) and the stratosphere (next level up in the atmosphere). The polar vortex is a winter phenomenon. It develops and strengthens in its respective hemispheres’ winters as the sun sets over the polar region and temperatures cool. They weaken in the summer. In the Northern Hemisphere, they circulate in a counterclockwise direction, so the vortex sitting over western Wisconsin is sweeping in cold Arctic air around it.

Source: NASA

A Heat Wave So Big You Can See It From Space

Hot enough for ya? If you live anywhere on the eastern half of the United States (like me) you’ve probably been sweating it out over the past several days in what certainly feels like the warmest week yet for the season. The cause of the oppressive weather? A large mid-level ridge centered over the Ohio Valley — large enough to be easily visible from space.

The image above was taken by the GOES East satellite at 12:45 p.m. EDT on July 15. The clear area over Ohio shows the center of the system, which has been driving temperatures up into the 90s for much of the eastern U.S. and is expected to expand into the plains by mid-week. Along with increased humidity, heat index values will exceed 100 ºF and even approach 110 ºF on Friday.

From the NASA Image of the Day page:

A very anomalous weather pattern is in place over the U.S. for mid-July. Trapped between an upper level ridge centered over the Ohio Valley and the closed upper level low over the Texas/Oklahoma border, atypical hot, muggy air is stifling a broad swath of the eastern U.S. The closed low is expected to drift west toward New Mexico bringing heavy, localized rain to some areas and temperatures running 10-20 degrees below mid-July averages. Across the east, temperatures will warm well into the 90s and stay there through the week. (NOAA)

Rendering of a GOES satellite (NOAA)
Rendering of a GOES satellite (NOAA)

As of the time of this writing heat advisories are in place in many parts of Michigan, southern Minnesota, and southern New England, and excessive heat warnings are active in eastern Pennsylvania and west central New Jersey. (Source)

Click here for summer heat safety tips.

Meanwhile, a closed low — seen above as a large, moisture-laden spiraling cloud system — is moving west across Texas and New Mexico, and is expected to bring lower-than-average temperatures along with heavy rains and flash flooding.

Keep up to date with weather alerts for your area at the NOAA’s National Weather Service site here, and see the latest GOES satellite images here.

Image Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

At an altitude of 22,336 miles, the geosynchronous GOES satellites continuously provide observations of 60 percent of the Earth including the continental United States, providing weather monitoring and forecast operations as well as a continuous and reliable stream of environmental information and severe weather warnings.

An Enormous Arctic Spiral

Looking south across the southern tip of Greenland, this satellite image shows an enormous cloud vortex spiraling over the northern Atlantic ocean on January 26, 2013. An example of the powerful convection currents in the upper latitudes, these polar low cyclones are created when the motion of cold air is energized by the warmer ocean water beneath.

Sometimes referred to as Arctic cyclones, these spiraling storms can bring gale-force winds and heavy snowfall over a wide area of ocean during their 12- to 36-hour lifespans. Hurricane-type storms don’t only form in the tropics!

This image was captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite from its polar orbit 705 km (438 miles) above the Earth. The view has been rotated so south is up; the southernmost tip of Greenland can be seen at lower right. Click for an impressive high-resolution view.

Image via EOSNAP/Chelys

NASA Satellite Snaps Winter Storm “Nemo”

Captured by NASA’s GOES-13 weather satellite on Friday, Feb. 8, this image shows the convergence of two massive low-pressure systems that are expected to bring high winds and up to 2–3 feet of snowfall across much of New England over the next 24 hours. This is the second and most powerful “nor’easter” of the season, and states in the region are preparing for the worst.

Acquired at 9:01 a.m. EST, the GOES image shows clouds associated with the western frontal system stretching from Canada through the Ohio and Tennessee valleys and down into the Gulf of Mexico. The comma-shaped low pressure system located over the Atlantic, east of Virginia, is forecast to merge with the front and create a powerful nor’easter, which The Weather Channel (in a recent move to name winter storms) has dubbed “Nemo.”

Watch a video of this process in action below.

Snowfall forecasts for New England states (Weather Channel)
Snowfall forecasts for New England states (Weather Channel)

At the time of this writing, the snow has begun to fall outside this writer’s house. Accumulations are less than an inch — but that’s soon to change! Many cancellations and closings have already been announced across the region, with people making apprehensive associations with the infamous Blizzard of ’78. It’s unlikely that as many people will be caught unprepared, though, especially since modern forecasting methods have dramatically improved over the past 35 years — due in no small part to space technology like NASA’s GOES (Geostationary Operational Environment Program) satellites.

Orbiting Earth at an altitude of 35,790 km (22,240 miles) the 4 operational GOES satellites keep a constant eye on the globe, providing the NOAA with accurate, real-time measurements of water vapor and land and sea temperature variations. See more GOES image data here.

In the path of Nemo? Here’s some tips on how to be prepared.

Clouds of Sand and Iron Swirl in a Failed Star’s Extreme Atmosphere

This artist's conception illustrates the brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026. NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes observed the object to learn more about its turbulent atmosphere. Brown dwarfs are more massive and hotter than planets but lack the mass required to become sizzling stars. Their atmospheres can be similar to the giant planet Jupiter's. Spitzer and Hubble simultaneously observed the object as it rotated every 1.4 hours. The results suggest wind-driven, planet-size clouds. Image credit:

Artist’s concept of brown dwarf  2MASSJ22282889-431026 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The complex weather patterns within the atmosphere of a rapidly-rotating brown dwarf have been mapped in the highest detail ever by researchers using the infrared abilities of NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes… talk about solar wind!

Sometimes referred to as failed stars, brown dwarfs form from condensing gas and dust like regular stars but never manage to gather enough mass to ignite full-on hydrogen fusion in their cores. As a result they more resemble enormous Jupiter-like planets, radiating low levels of heat while possessing bands of wind-driven eddies in their upper atmospheric layers.

Although brown dwarfs are by their nature very dim, and thus difficult to observe in visible wavelengths of light, their heat can be detected by Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope — both of which can “see” just fine in near- and far-infrared, respectively.

Led by researchers from the University of Arizona, a team of astronomers used these orbiting observatories on July 7, 2011 to measure the light curves from a brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026 (2M2228 for short.) What they found was that while 2M2228 exhibited periodic brightening in both near- and far-infrared over the course of its speedy 1.43-hour rotation, the amount and rate of brightening varied between the different wavelengths detected by the two telescopes.

ssc2013-01a_Inline

“With Hubble and Spitzer, we were able to look at different atmospheric layers of a brown dwarf, similar to the way doctors use medical imaging techniques to study the different tissues in your body.”

– Daniel Apai, principal investigator, University of Arizona

This unexpected variance — or phase shift — most likely indicates different layers of cloud material and wind velocities surrounding 2M2228, swirling around the dwarf star in very much the same way as the stormy cloud bands seen on Jupiter or Saturn.

But while the clouds on Jupiter are made of gases like ammonia and methane, the clouds of 2M2228 are made of much more unusual stuff.

ssc2013-01b_Inline“Unlike the water clouds of Earth or the ammonia clouds of Jupiter, clouds on brown dwarfs are composed of hot grains of sand, liquid drops of iron, and other exotic compounds,” said Mark Marley, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and co-author of the paper. “So this large atmospheric disturbance found by Spitzer and Hubble gives a new meaning to the concept of extreme weather.”

While it might seem strange to think about weather on a star, remember that brown dwarfs are much more gas planet-like than “real” stars. Although the temperatures of 1,100–1,600 ºF (600–700 ºC) found on 2M2228 might sound searingly hot, it’s downright chilly compared to even regular stars like our Sun, which has an average temperature of nearly 10,000 ºF (5,600 ºC). Different materials gather at varying layers of its atmosphere, depending on temperature and pressure, and can be penetrated by different wavelengths of infrared light — just like gas giant planets.

“What we see here is evidence for massive, organized cloud systems, perhaps akin to giant versions of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter,” said Adam Showman, a theorist at the University of Arizona involved in the research. “These out-of-sync light variations provide a fingerprint of how the brown dwarf’s weather systems stack up vertically. The data suggest regions on the brown dwarf where the weather is cloudy and rich in silicate vapor deep in the atmosphere coincide with balmier, drier conditions at higher altitudes — and vice versa.”

The team’s results were presented today, January 8, during the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, CA.

Read more on the Spitzer site, and find the team’s paper in PDF form here.

Inset image: the anatomy of a brown dwarf’s atmosphere (NASA/JPL).