Observatory reveals storms on Neptune, oceans on Titan
Image of Neptune taken with the Keck II Telescope in infra-red light. A prominent storm system can be seen on the lower right of Neptune's disk.
January 18, 2000
Web posted at: 5:56 p.m. EST (2256 GMT)
LIVERMORE, California -- The best ever Earth-based images of
two distant celestial bodies reveal giant storms on Neptune
and possible landmasses separated by chilled hydrocarbon
oceans on Titan, scientists with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory said this week.
The infrared light images were captured with the W.M. Keck II telescope in Hawaii using adaptive optics
technology and were presented last week at a meeting of the American Astronomical Association.
Their unprecedented clarity exceeds even the capability of the Hubble Space Telescope, according to scientists with the
Neptunian winds reach 600 mph
The images of Neptune, a large gaseous planet 2.8 billion
miles from Earth, exhibit giant tempests driven by prevailing
winds of 600 miles per hour.
| IMAGE GALLERY|
Keck's infrared detectors penetrated into the deep layers of
the planet's roiling atmosphere, where heat from its
contracting core generates the storms.
As Neptune whirls through its 16-hour day, storm features are
pulled completely across the face of the planet. At the north
pole, a mysterious haze crowns the planet.
Keck's adaptive optics images of Neptune are helping
scientists study the planet's storms and their evolution, a
first step toward understanding Neptune's weather and
"Neptune is one of the most dynamic of the giant planets,"
said Dr. Bruce Macintosh of the Livermore Lab. "It's always
changing. Being able to study it from the ground on a
continuous basis, rather than waiting for a spacecraft to fly
by, is a huge advantage."
Titan could sport highlands, great basin
The Titan images will offer clues about the complex surface
composition of the Saturnian moon, a frigid world some 800
million miles from the sun.
Titan has a nitrogen-rich atmosphere similar to that of the
early Earth. Sunlight shining on this atmosphere produces a
deep orange haze that obscures Titan's surface from view at
Keck's new adaptive optics images, taken in infrared light,
offer much greater sensitivity than past observing
techniques. They pick out features "that may be cold
hydrocarbon seas and lakes," said Dr. Seran Gibbard, a
Livermore scientist. Other features might be highlands, and
one dark area appears to be a large impact crater or great
New technologies unravel distant mysteries
In 2004 the Cassini spacecraft, built by NASA and the
European Space Agency, is scheduled to land the Huygens probe
on Titan. Keck's new images will help researchers determine
beforehand whether the probe will plunge into an
extra-terrestrial sea or land on a solid surface.
The images are among the first taken
with Keck's new adaptive optics technology, which uses rapid
mirror adjustments to remove Earth's atmospheric turbulence
from the telescope's images.
In coming months, a new spectrograph will be added to the
Keck adaptive optics system. This will help answer questions
about the chemical composition and physical state of the
features newly seen on Neptune and Titan.
The team of researchers investigating the images includes scientists from the Keck Observatory and the University of California at
Berkeley and Los Angeles. The team was led by Dr. Claire Max of the Livermore Lab.
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Lawrence Livermore Laboratory
W.M. Keck Observatory
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