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Hubble captures birth of Earth-sized dark vortex on Neptune for 1st time

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
March 26, 2019, 2:07:06 PM EDT

Neptune Dark Spot 2019

This is a composite picture showing images of storms on Neptune from the Hubble Space Telescope (left) and the Voyager 2 spacecraft (right). The Hubble Wide Field Camera 3 image of Neptune, taken in Sept. and Nov. 2018, shows a new dark storm (top center). In the Voyager image, a storm known as the Great Dark Spot is seen at the center. (PHOTO/NASA/ESA/GSFC/JPL)

For the first time ever, scientists were able to chronicle the formation of one of Neptune's enormous "Great Dark Spot" storms over several years. These images offer new insights into these mysterious, extraterrestrial weather features.

Scientists have been monitoring dark spots, or vortices, on Neptune for decades, according to a NASA press release published on Monday.

NASA’s Voyager 2 soared by Neptune in 1989. Neptune was its final planetary target before speeding to the outer limits of the solar system. This was the first, and only, time that a spacecraft has journeyed to this remote territory in the outer-reaches of our solar system.

On its 1989 journey, Voyager 2 captured images of two giant dark spots storms brewing in Neptune’s southern hemisphere. Scientists dubbed the storms “The Great Dark Spot” and “Dark Spot 2,” according to the press release.

The Great Dark Spot is about 8,000 miles by 4,100 miles in size, which is about the size of Earth, according to NASA.

Five years later in 1994, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took sharp images of Neptune from Earth’s distance of 2.7 billion miles. The Hubble’s photos revealed that both the Earth-sized Great Dark Spot and the smaller Dark Spot 2 had vanished.

Unlike Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, which has been observed continuously since at least 1830, the dark spots on Neptune had disappeared. Planetary scientists were interested in learning why these spots vanished.

The Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project seeks to answer these questions, according to NASA.

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The images captured by Hubble have allowed the team of scientists to not only witness a storm’s formation for the first time, but also to develop constraints that pinpoint the frequency and duration of the storm systems.

In 2015, the OPAL team began a yearly mission to analyze images of Neptune captured by Hubble. The team detected a small dark spot in the southern hemisphere in 2015 and has continued to view the planet and monitor the storm since.

A new dark emerged in 2018, which is similar in size to the first spotted "Great Dark Spot."

The team was busy tracking the smaller storm from 2015, and they weren't expecting to see another large storm appear so soon, Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in the press release.

“That was a pleasant surprise. Every time we get new images from Hubble, something is different than what we expected,” Simon said.

And for the first time, the storm’s birth was caught on camera, according to the NASA press release.

By analyzing Hubble images of Neptune captured between 2015 to 2017, the team found that several small, white clouds formed in the region where the most recent dark spot would later appear, the press release reads. Their findings were published on March 25, 2019, in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Neptune new dark spot 2016

New images obtained on May 16, 2016, by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope confirm the presence of a dark vortex in the atmosphere of Neptune. (PHOTO/ NASA, ESA, and M.H. Wong and J. Tollefson (UC Berkeley))

Scientists continue to study and monitor the planet, but conditions on Neptune are still largely a mystery. According to the NASA press release, scientists hope to next study the changes in the shape of the vortex and wind speed in the storms.

More frequent observations using the Hubble Space Telescope will help paint a clearer picture of how storm systems on Neptune evolve, Michael Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in the press release.

Planetary scientists agree that these recent findings have spurred a desire to track Neptune, as well as other distant planets, in even greater detail.

“The more you know, the more you realize you don't know,” Glenn Orton, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who also serves on the OPAL project, said in the press release.

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