As summer draws to a close in the southern hemisphere of Uranus, storm clouds are brewing in the upper atmosphere, northern hemisphere winds are gusting to 250 miles per hour, and the planets rings are getting brighter every day.
The changing view of Uranus since 2000. As Uranus has moved to present a more edge-on view of its rings, the rings have become brighter and more distinct, revealing for the first time from Earth the innermost ring photographed only once before, by the Voyager 2 spacecraft. These near infrared images from the Keck II telescope also show gradual improvement in the telescopes adaptive optics system, which removes atmospheric blurring. (Credit: Imke de Pater, Heidi Hammel and Sarah Gibbard)
“Fourth of July fireworks” in Uranus’ southern hemisphere (bright spot at left of lower left image) indicate that vigorous convection is starting up, bringing methane clouds to high altitudes for the first time in decades. The near infrared Keck II images at 1.6 microns wavelength (top) show low altitude clouds, in particular the polar collar and a nearby bright cloud. Observations at 2.2 microns, however, reveal high-altitude features, including the cloud’s bright core: presumably material rising up to high altitudes in Uranus atmosphere. (Credit: Heidi Hammel and Imke de Pater )
This weather report comes from researchers using the Keck II 10-meter telescope atop Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii, where recent observations are proving that Uranus is not the "boring and unchanging" planet people have assumed, according to Imke de Pater, professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. The new images were obtained with the second-generation Near Infrared Camera (NIRC2) using the adaptive optics system on the Keck II telescope. "Its really intriguing, the planet seems to be getting more active as the equinox approaches," said de Pater, who, with colleague Heidi B. Hammel of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., has been observing Uranus since 2000 with adaptive optics on the Keck II telescope.
"When the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Uranus in 1986, it saw almost no discrete cloud activity – you could literally count the number of discrete clouds on your fingers: 10! Most astronomers decided that Uranus was a boring, static planet," Hammel added. "What we are seeing now is the opposite, that actually there are changes, and they are visible to Keck and the Hubble Space Telescope."
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