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Uranus Mega-Storms Surprise Scientists and Light Up Atmosphere

Image: Uranus Mega-Storms Surprise Scientists and Light Up Atmosphere
In this 1986 file image taken by Voyager II, Uranus from a distance of 4,17 million kilometers. (AFP/Getty Images)

By    |   Thursday, 13 Nov 2014 04:19 PM

The usually calm planet of Uranus is seeing mega-storm activity this year that’s surprising and delighting the astronomy world as huge, bright cloud systems allow them to see detail in the planet’s atmosphere.

"The weather on Uranus is incredibly active," Imke de Pater, professor and chair of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, told NASA. He leads Hawaii’s W.M. Keck Observatory team that identified the activity.

"This type of activity would have been expected in 2007, when Uranus's once every 42-year equinox occurred and the sun shined directly on the equator," co-investigator Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy added. "But we predicted that such activity would have died down by now. Why we see these incredible storms now is beyond anybody's guess."

The Keck Observatory team found eight mega-storms that occurred on Aug. 5 and 6, including one that was the brightest ever seen on the planet.

The excitement about the unusual activity spread to amateur astronomers who were able to see the storms, as well.

"I was thrilled to see such activity on Uranus. Getting details on Mars, Jupiter, or Saturn is now routine, but seeing details on Uranus and Neptune are the new frontiers for us amateurs and I did not want to miss that," French amateur astronomer Mark Delcroix said in the NASA article.

National Geographic said the icy Uranus, which lies about 1.86 billion miles away from Earth, continued to experience storm activity in October when the Hubble Telescope was turned toward it.

The telescope identified "multiple giant storms extending more than 5,592 miles (9,000 kilometers) across, at various altitudes. That is roughly three-quarters of the diameter of Earth," National Geographic said.

Because the planet has no internal heat source, scientists thought atmospheric activity was sunlight-induced, NASA said. But the sun is weak in the northern hemisphere, and it’s unclear what is causing the storms.

“These unexpected observations remind us keenly of how little we understand about atmospheric dynamics in outer planet atmospheres," NASA quoted the study authors.

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The usually calm planet of Uranus is seeing mega-storm activity this year that's surprising and delighting the astronomy world as huge, bright cloud systems allow them to see detail in the planet's atmosphere.
uranus, mega-storms, surprise, scientists
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2014-19-13
Thursday, 13 Nov 2014 04:19 PM
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