23 September 2023

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Neptune’s Cloud Cover Fluctuations Linked to Solar Activity

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Neptune’s Cloud Cover Fluctuations Linked to Solar Activity

Astronomers have made an intriguing discovery regarding Neptune’s cloud cover. Over the past several years, the pale streaks of cloud that typically adorn the planet’s blue atmosphere have all but disappeared. This phenomenon has been observed before in images dating back to 1994, indicating that it is not a first-time occurrence. Moreover, these cloud fluctuations appear to be synchronized with the 11-year cycles of solar activity.

Neptune, located approximately 4.5 billion kilometers from the Sun, has surprised astronomers with this revelation. The recent transformation has been particularly dramatic, with the planet’s mid-latitudes becoming increasingly cloud-free 2020. Even in 2023, the clouds have not returned to their former levels, which is highly unexpected.

Neptune’s remote location and limited study have hindered a comprehensive understanding of its atmosphere. Nonetheless, the available data reveals a complex and dynamic atmosphere that is influenced processes not yet fully understood. However, long-term atmospheric trends can still be identified, thanks to observations made from Earth.

Researchers focused their study on data gathered since 1994 the Hubble Space Telescope, since 2002 the Keck Observatory, and from the Lick Observatory in 2018 and 2019. By combining these datasets, they discovered that Neptune’s cloud cover fluctuates over 11-year cycles closely linked to solar activity.

The Sun undergoes magnetic field reversals and peaks in flares, coronal mass ejections, and sunspots approximately every 11 years. When the poles switch places during this cycle, the Sun becomes quieter before entering another solar maximum. The team’s analysis reveals that clouds begin to appear on Neptune around two years after the onset of intense ultraviolet (UV) irradiation from the Sun. The amount of sunlight reflected Neptune, known as its albedo, also correlates positively with its cloud cover.

The findings support the theory that the Sun’s strong UV rays trigger a photochemical reaction that produces the clouds on Neptune. The team observed a correlation between Neptune’s cloud cover and solar UV radiation levels. However, further data analysis will be necessary to determine the exact nature of these photochemical interactions. There are possibilities of UV interactions leading to darkening rather than lightening of clouds, which would result in a lower albedo.

Ongoing observations and data from the James Webb Space Telescope will provide additional insights as astronomers head into the next solar maximum in 2025. Studying Neptune up close with a spacecraft would be ideal, but for now, astronomers must rely on remote observations.

Article Source:
– Title: Neptune’s Cloud Cover Fluctuations Linked to Solar Activity
– Source: Icarus