Out in the depths of our solar system, about 1.8 billion miles away from the Sun somewhere between the planets Saturn and far-flung Neptune, orbits the oddball ice giant Uranus – a frigid, thinly-ringed world tipped almost completely on its side and shrouded in both mystery and pale blue-green clouds. Aside from the occasional bright storm clouds spotted along the planet’s mid-latitudes and the even rarer darker blue storms, Uranus’ atmosphere has proven to be remarkably featureless… especially around its high southern latitudes.
Now, astronomer Erich Karkoschka from the University of Arizona has used imagery from Voyager 2’s 1986 visit to Uranus to bring out some visible features in the planet’s skies by using pattern recognition software to map out even the most subtle differences, and then boosting the contrast to make them more apparent. What he’s found are atmospheric anomalies that hint at curious structures in the planet’s dense core far beneath.
Watch a very cool animation below showing the new details Karkoschka has teased out of 29-year-old Voyager 2 data:
Video credit: Erich Karkoschka
“Some of these features probably are convective clouds caused by updraft and condensation,” said Karkoschka, senior staff scientist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “Some of the brighter features look like clouds that extend over hundreds of kilometers.”
In addition, the several “sharp kinks” identified in Uranus’ southern circulation through Karkoschka’s imaging are a complete surprise, and may indicate details of the currently-unknown structure of the planet’s core.
“The unusual rotation of high southern latitudes of Uranus is probably due to an unusual feature in the interior of Uranus,” said Karkoschka. “While the nature of the feature and its interaction with the atmosphere are not yet known, the fact that I found this unusual rotation offers new possibilities to learn about the interior of a giant planet.”
Because many newly-discovered exoplanets are suspected to be ice giants like Uranus and Neptune, learning more about this world in our own solar system will give astronomers insight into the types of planets that will be found elsewhere.
Read more here from the University of Arizona news site.
Source: University of Arizona