Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

Something’s afoot at Neptune’s South Pole. Back in July 2007, astronomers took a series of infrared pictures of Neptune using the 10 metre W.M. Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Astronomers have long been aware of a bright spot at Neptune’s south pole. The feature first showed up in pictures taken during the Voyager spacecraft flyby and it has been spotted on various occasions since then using ground-based instruments.

So what happened in July 2007 puzzled them: the spot divided into two and then recombined a few days later.

Today, Statia Luszcz-Cook at the University of California Berkeley and a couple of buddies, say they now know what’s going on. The white spots, they say, are probably methane clouds caught in a powerful vortex of winds at the south pole.

The reason they can tell is because a similar phenomena exists at Saturn’s south pole and this has been extensively studied thanks to the marvellous images being sent back by Casini.

Although the hurricane on Neptune isn’t directly visible, Luscz-Cook and co have studied the dynamics of clouds caught in Saturn’s vortex and say the behaviour of the Neptunian clouds is remarkably similar.

These hurricanes have other interesting features. Although their scale is huge–they are thousands of kilometres wide–extraterrestrial hurricanes are remarkably similar to the ones that form on Earth. “The structure of Saturn’s south polar vortex possesses similarities with terrestrial hurricanes, such as a well-formed central eye, concentric eyewalls and a surrounding ring of strong convection,” say the team.

They also point out that the spots on Neptune are “consistent with clouds formed by the upwelling and condensation of methane gas.” Which is another way of saying that it rains methane on Neptune.

The weather on Earth isn’t as unique as we might imagine.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1003.3240: Seeing Double at Neptune’s South Pole




0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me