Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have observed a large dark spot in Neptune’s atmosphere, with an unexpected smaller bright spot adjacent to it. This is the first time a dark spot on the planet has ever been observed with a telescope on Earth. These occasional features in the blue background of Neptune’s atmosphere are a mystery to astronomers, and the new results provide further clues as to their nature and origin.
Large spots are common features in the atmospheres of giant planets, the most famous being Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. On Neptune, a dark spot was first discovered by NASA’s Voyager 2 in 1989, before disappearing a few years later. “Since the first discovery of a dark spot, I’ve always wondered what these short-lived and elusive dark features are,” says Patrick Irwin, Professor at the University of Oxford in the UK and lead investigator of the study published today in Nature Astronomy.
Irwin and his team used data from ESO’s VLT to rule out the possibility that dark spots are caused by a ‘clearing’ in the clouds. The new observations indicate instead that dark spots are likely the result of air particles darkening in a layer below the main visible haze layer, as ices and hazes mix in Neptune’s atmosphere.
Coming to this conclusion was no easy feat because dark spots are not permanent features of Neptune’s atmosphere and astronomers had never before been able to study them in sufficient detail. The opportunity came after the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope discovered several dark spots in Neptune’s atmosphere, including one in the planet’s northern hemisphere first noticed in 2018. Irwin and his team immediately got to work studying it from the ground — with an instrument that is ideally suited to these challenging observations.
Using the VLT’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE), the researchers were able to split reflected sunlight from Neptune and its spot into its component colours, or wavelengths, and obtain a 3D spectrum…