Cloud bands and an oval storm swirl through the atmosphere of Neptune in this photo from the Voyager 2 spacecraft. Scientists have measured winds on the giant planet at up to 1,300 miles per hour. Neptune looks blue because methane in its upper atmosphere absorbs redder wavelengths of light. [NASA/JPL]
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Neptune at Opposition II
We’re at the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season right now — more hurricanes form around the first of September than at any other time. Their winds can top out at 100 to 150 miles per hour — strong enough to cause massive damage.
Yet compared to winds on the planet Neptune, the strongest hurricane ever measured is like a summer breeze. Winds on the solar system’s most-distant major planet have been clocked at up to 1300 miles per hour — fast enough to sweep from Los Angeles to New York in just a couple of hours.
No one is certain why Neptune’s winds are so fast. A study a couple of years ago said they might get their energy from cloud formation; when water vapor condenses to form clouds, it releases heat.
The study also found that there’s nothing to slow down the winds once they start blowing. The deep atmosphere below the visible clouds is fairly smooth and uniform, so there are no “bumps” to slow the winds. And Neptune is so far from the Sun that it receives little solar energy, which can cause turbulence that would slow things down. So once the winds on Neptune get cranked up, they keep on going.
And if you have strong binoculars or a telescope, this is a good time to look for Neptune. The planet is in view all night long, and it shines brightest for the year. It looks like a small, faint blue “star” near the center of the constellation Aquarius, which is low in the southeast at nightfall.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015