This is how NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft saw the planet Uranus in 1986. © NASA/JPL-Caltech
After decades of waiting, the north pole of Uranus can be seen again from Earth – and astronomy promptly makes a discovery there.
Pasadena – Uranus is one of eight planets in our solar system and has received little research – mainly due to its great distance from the sun. The average distance between the Sun and Uranus is about 2.9 billion kilometers. Only NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft visited Uranus and collected data during its flyby of the ice giant. But that could change soon, because a mission to Uranus is at the top of astronomy's wish list. The researchers who compiled this list believe that Uranus is one of the most fascinating objects in our solar system and that it holds many mysteries that have yet to be solved.
For this reason, Uranus is currently a focus of research. Scientists are looking for topics that should be studied in a future Uranus mission, as well as clues to the most useful tools for such a mission. Recently, the James Webb Space Telescope unveiled the rings of Uranus, and data from the Voyager mission revealed a mystery about Uranus' moons: there are at least four large moons that may harbor internal oceans. These could also be studied in more detail in the course of the new mission, if it were known in advance which instruments would be needed for this.
Polar vortex discovered at the north pole of the planet Uranus
While observing Uranus with the Very Large Array (VLA) telescope facility, researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have now made a surprising discovery. There seems to be a polar vortex at the north pole of the ice giant. The research group discovered this through radio data collected by the VLA. The data showed that the air above Uranus' north pole is warmer and drier — a clear sign of a strong hurricane.
"These observations give us much more insight into the history of Uranus. It's a much more dynamic world than you might think," emphasizes Alex Akins, the lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. "He's not just a simple blue ball of gas. There's a lot going on under the hood," the researcher said in a NASA statement.
The bright spot to the right of center shows the polar vortex at the planet's north pole in all three images of Uranus. © NASA/JPL-Caltech/VLA
Uranus finally turns its north pole back to Earth
The discovery of the polar vortex at the north pole of Uranus was made possible by observations made possible in 2015, 2021 and 2022. It is only since 2015 that the north pole of the ice giant has been visible from Earth again. Previously, he was invisible from Earth for several decades. When the north pole of Uranus was last seen from Earth, radio astronomy was still in the early stages of its development, so such observation was not possible at that time.
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This new discovery on the planet Uranus means that a polar vortex has been observed on all planets in our solar system that have an atmosphere. The only exception is the small planet Mercury, which, however, does not have a significant atmosphere either.
This article, written by the editors, used machine support. The article was carefully reviewed by editor Tanja Banner before publication.