An image taken by planetary scientist Larry Sromovsky, with the Gemini 8.1 meter telescope, shows a bright patch that is thought to be an eruption of methane ice high in the atmosphere. Amateur astronomers with large telescopes and CCD cameras are being urged to turn them on the distant planet Uranus following reports of the appearance of a brilliant new feature.
Leading planetary scientist Heidi B. Hammel used her Facebook page to announce the discovery and to appeal for further observations. Amateur astronomers with advanced equipment are being asked to make observations of the planet and, if enough confirmations are received, it may lead controllers of the Hubble Space Telescope to interrupt observations and take a closer look.
“The reason we care about the clouds on the planet Uranus is that they seem to be seasonally driven,” said Hammel. “Uranus spins tipped over on its side, giving rise to extreme changes in sunlight as its seasons progress.
“The changes are therefore much more dramatic than for other planets. Uranus thus gives us unique insight into the energy balance in a planetary atmosphere.”
It’s almost like a weather system on steroids, as the northern hemisphere receives 42 years of sunlight and constant energy from the sun with the southern hemisphere plunged into 42 years of darkness.
Uranus, like the other giant planets in the solar system (Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune), is made up almost entirely of gas, although it differs in composition to Jupiter and Saturn — it has higher quantities of water, methane and ammonia ices. Unlike conventional ice, it’s a super dense liquid. Uranus, like Neptune, is often referred to as an “ice giant.”
Uranus measures a mighty four-times the diameter of Earth and orbits the sun at an average distance of 2.9 billion kilometers (around 20 times the Earth-sun distance). From that distance it’s only just visible to the naked eye under dark skies, but telescopes are needed to see any detail.