Located 2.8 billion kilometers from the Sun, Neptune is naturally cold. But a new study shows that temperatures on the eighth planet from the Sun could be even colder and more variable than scientists originally thought. Thanks to new technology only available in the past 20 years, researchers have a better look at this ice giant and its temperatures.
A group of international researchers found that between 2003 and 2018, the planet cooled by 14 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius). They were then even more surprised to see that between 2018 and 2020, Neptune’s south pole warmed up dramatically – by 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) to be exact.
To understand what makes these findings so interesting, we need to know a bit more about Neptune. One of the coldest planets in the solar system, Neptune’s average temperature is -373°F (-207°C). And while Neptune, like Earth, has distinct seasons, they move much more slowly. While on Earth we go through our seasons in 365 days, it takes Neptune about 165 years to orbit the Sun. This means that a single season can last 40 years.
Since 2005, it has been summer in the southern hemisphere of the planet and it is these temperatures that researchers have been interested in monitoring. In order to learn more about its summer temperatures, researchers looked at 17 years of data taken by telescopes around the world. By looking at thermal images, they were able to determine these drastic temperature changes.
“This change was unexpected,” says Michael Roman, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Leicester, UK, and lead author of the study published in The Journal of Planetary Science. “Since we observed Neptune at the start of the southern summer, we expected temperatures to be slowly warming, not colder.”
As for the rapid warming of the south pole, when researchers were aware of a warm polar vortex, such a sharp rise in temperatures had never been observed before. “Our data covers less than half of a Neptune season, so no one expected to see large, rapid changes,” says co-author Glenn Orton, principal investigator at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the States. -United.
Due to its remote location, Neptune is still quite mysterious. Thanks to advances in technology, researchers have only recently been able to tackle the planet’s temperatures. “This type of study is only possible with sensitive infrared images from large telescopes like the VLT that can clearly observe Neptune, and these have only been available for about 20 years,” explains the co- author Leigh Fletcher, professor at University of Leicester.
Most of the images in the study come from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) located in Chile’s Atacama Desert. The incredible size and altitude of the telescope’s mirror allow it to take high-resolution images of Neptune. And researchers hope that other cutting-edge instruments, like the James Webb Telescope, will allow them to gain even more information about the distant planet to better understand its temperature fluctuations.
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