NASA Soon to Unveil Ice-Bound Secrets of Neptune & Uranus

The Ice PLanets --Neptune & Uranus

 

When the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2021, NASA scientists predict they’ll observe phenomena on the ice giants, Uranus and Neptune–the least-explored category of planet in our solar system–that are totally unlike anything we’ve seen. The Neptune we currently know is a dark, cold world, whipped by supersonic winds that can reach up 1,500 miles per hour. More than 30 times as far from the Sun as Earth, Neptune is the only planet in our solar system not visible to the naked eye. Its existence was predicted by mathematics before its discovery in 1846. In 2011, Neptune completed its first 165-year orbit since its discovery.

Like Uranus, this ice giant’s very deep atmosphere is made of a thick soup of water, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane over an unknown and inaccessible interior. The accessible upper layers of the atmosphere are made of hydrogen, helium and methane. As with Uranus, the methane gives Neptune its blue color, but some still-mysterious atmospheric chemistry makes Neptune’s blue a bit more striking than that of Uranus.

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“It’s the same question here: How does energy flow and how is it transported through a planetary atmosphere?” explained team leader, Leigh Fletcher, an associate professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. “But in this case, unlike Uranus, the planet has a strong internal heat source. That heat source generates some of the most powerful winds and the most short-lived atmospheric vortices and cloud features of anywhere in the solar system. If we look at Neptune from night to night, its face is always shifting and changing as these clouds are stretched and pulled and manipulated by the underlying wind field.”

Following the 1989 Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune, scientists discovered a bright, hot vortex—a storm—at the planet’s south pole. Because the temperature there is higher than everywhere else in the atmosphere, this region is likely associated with some unique chemistry. Webb’s sensitivity will allow scientists to understand the unusual chemical environment within that polar vortex.

Fletcher advises to be prepared for seeing phenomena on Uranus and Neptune that are totally unlike what we’ve witnessed in the past. “Webb really has the capability to see the ice giants in a whole new light. But to understand the continual atmospheric processes that are shaping these giant planets, you really need more than just a couple of samples,” he said. “So we compare Jupiter to Saturn to Uranus to Neptune, and by that, we build up a wider picture of how atmospheres work in general. This is the beginning of understanding how these worlds are changing with time.”

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“The key thing that Webb can do that is very, very difficult to accomplish from any other facility is map their atmospheric temperature and chemical structure,” explained the studies’ leader, Fletcher. “We think that the weather and climate of the ice giants are going to have a fundamentally different character compared to the gas giants. That’s partly because they’re so far away from the Sun, they’re smaller in size and rotate slower on their axes, but also because the blend of gases and the amount of atmospheric mixing is very different compared with Jupiter and Saturn.”

All the gases in the upper atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune have unique chemical fingerprints that Webb can detect. Crucially, Webb can distinguish one chemical from another. If these chemicals are being produced by sunlight interacting with the atmosphere, or if they’re being redistributed from place to place by large-scale circulation patterns, Webb will be able to see that.

“We now know of hundreds of exoplanets—planets around other stars—of the size of our local ice giants. Uranus and Neptune provide us ground truth for studies of these newly discovered worlds,” said Heidi Hammel, a planetary scientist and Webb Interdisciplinary Scientist, leader of Guaranteed Time Observations (GTO) program of the solar system.

Tilted –Did Uranus Experience a Gargantuan Collision?

Unlike the other planets in our solar system, Uranus—along with its rings and moons—is tipped on its side, rotating at roughly a 90-degree angle from the plane of its orbit. This makes the planet appear to roll like a ball around the Sun. That weird orientation—which may be the result of a gargantuan collision with another massive protoplanet early in the formation of the solar system—gives rise to extreme seasons on Uranus.

When NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Uranus in 1986, one pole was pointing directly at the Sun. “No matter how much Uranus would spin,” Hammel explained, “one half was in complete sunlight all the time, and the other half was in total darkness. It’s the craziest thing you can imagine.”

Neptune’s “Great Dark Spot” –‘Jupiter Now has an Earth-Sized Rival’

Disappointingly, Voyager 2 saw only a billiard-ball smooth planet covered in haze, with only a scant handful of clouds. But when Hubble viewed Uranus in the early 2000s, the planet had traveled a quarter of the way around in its orbit. Now the equator was pointed at the Sun, and the entire planet was illuminated over the course of a Uranian day.

“Theory told us nothing would change,” said Hammel, “But the reality was that Uranus started sprouting up all kinds of bright clouds, and a dark spot was discovered by Hubble. The clouds seemed to be changing dramatically in response to the immediate change in sunlight as the planet traveled around the Sun.”

The Webb will give insight into the powerful seasonal forces driving the formation of its clouds and weather, and how this is changing with time. It will help determine how energy flows and is transported through the Uranian atmosphere. Scientists want to watch Uranus throughout Webb’s life, to build up a timeline of how the atmosphere responds to the extreme seasons. That will help them understand why this planet’s atmosphere seems to go through periods of intense activity punctuated by moments of calm.

Like Uranus, Neptune’s deep atmosphere is made of a thick soup of water, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane over an unknown and inaccessible interior. The accessible upper layers of the atmosphere are made of hydrogen, helium and methane. As with Uranus, the methane gives Neptune its blue color, but some still-mysterious atmospheric chemistry makes Neptune’s blue a bit more striking than that of Uranus.

Neptune’s Internal Dynamo

“It’s the same question here: How does energy flow and how is it transported through a planetary atmosphere?” explained Fletcher. “But in this case, unlike Uranus, the planet has a strong internal heat source. That heat source generates some of the most powerful winds and the most short-lived atmospheric vortices and cloud features of anywhere in the solar system. If we look at Neptune from night to night, its face is always shifting and changing as these clouds are stretched and pulled and manipulated by the underlying wind field.”

Following the 1989 Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune, scientists discovered a bright, hot vortex—a storm—at the planet’s south pole. Because the temperature there is higher than everywhere else in the atmosphere, this region is likely associated with some unique chemistry. Webb’s sensitivity will allow scientists to understand the unusual chemical environment within that polar vortex.

The Daily Galaxy, Sam Cabot, via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Hubble Space Telescope images at the top of the page show the varied faces of Uranus. On the left, Uranus in 2005 displays its ring system. The planet — along with its rings and moons — is tipped on its side, rotating at roughly a 90-degree angle from the plane of its orbit. In the Hubble close-up taken just one year later, Uranus reveals its banded structure and a mysterious dark storm. NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute); Right: NASA, ESA, L. Sromovsky and P. Fry (U. Wisconsin), H. Hammel (Space Science Institute), and K. Rages (SETI Institute)