Neptune's mysterious storm shrinking out of existence

NASA Hubble Space telescope Neptune storm Jupiter's Giant Red Spot ice giant planet University of California Berkeley planet-watchers cloud activity Neptune dark spot anticyclones

Scientists had previously hypothesized the storms arising on Neptune last only a few years, unlike Jupiter's Great Red spot whose storms have been raging for centuries. These dark vortices pack copious amounts of hydrogen sulphide that smells like rotten eggs or bad farts.

This includes two dark storms that appeared in the 1990s but suddenly vanished, and now the massive storm identified in 2015 is shrinking. Although storms have come and gone in the decades since NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft whizzed by closer than any man-made object had approached Neptune, the space agency reported that this is the first time it is actually seeing a storm diminish into oblivion. Recent data from Hubble telescope revealed that the dark-colored storm is fading and soon the storm will die.

Such dark vortices aren't a novelty.

The storm's "particles themselves are still highly reflective; they are just slightly darker than the particles in the surrounding atmosphere", Joshua Tollefson from the University of California at Berkeley said in a statement.

According to new research published in the Astronomical Journal, the spot's contrast weakened from about 7% to about 3% from 2015 to 2017, while companion clouds shifted from its offset to the center.

"It looks like we're capturing the demise of this dark vortex, and it's different from what well-known studies led us to expect", said Michael H Wong of the University of California Berkeley.

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"Many questions remain as to how dark vortices originate, what controls their drift and oscillation, how they interact with the environment, and how they eventually dissipate", said one of the study's author.

Jupiter's Great Red Spot has been known much longer; astronomers with small telescopes first spotted it in 1831, and it's been watched continuously since the 1870s.

The vortex, dubbed SDS-2015, is normally invisible, being shrouded by Neptune's cloudy surface.

Neptune is three billion miles away; of the major known planets within our solar system, it is the farthest from Earth. Once it got too close to the equator, the vortex would break up, creating a flashy outburst of cloud activity - or so the prediction went. Instead, the storm seems like it's just fading into nothing as it moves toward Neptune's south pole and not the planet's equator as expected, NASA said.

Hubble and the Voyager are the only machines that have observed Neptune's vortices. Several years later, the Hubble Space Telescope started monitoring the weather conditions on the planet and arrived at some fascinating findings, which could provide the groundwork for more profound climate studies in space.

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