Beauty, questions abound in view of Neptune

photo of neptune

A huge previously unknown hexagonal wind pattern may exist at the south pole of the planet Neptune, Slate astronomy reporter writer Phil Plait posits in an article completed with stunning photography.

Plait noticed the fascinating pattern while studying images composed from photos taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft a quarter century ago and later tweaked by amateur astronomer Rolf Wahl Olsen. (Click above image to see a glimpse of the stunning beauty of our solar system.)

Neptune, which is 2.7 billion miles from Earth, is little known relatively speaking, and there have been many things scientists have gleaned from Voyager’s pass-by en route to its destination with interstellar space.

However, one thing that not yet recognized was the possibility of a large hexagonal wind pattern, much like the one that blows around the north pole of the planet Saturn, according to Plait.

The Slate writer has contacted an astronomer whose specialty is the outer planets of our solar system about the pattern shown in the image. She, in turn, contacted other astronomers. All expressed excitement, but also prudence, cautioning that it’s easy to be fooled when looking at images of distant celestial bodies.

One thing for certain is that the hexagonal wind patterns do exist on Saturn.

“On Saturn, the hexagon is caused by winds blowing around the pole, very similar to the Earth’s jet stream,” Plait wrote. “In our case the winds meander a lot around the pole, and don’t form a nice, neat geometrical shape. On Saturn, though, conditions are different, and those winds blow true. Regular polygons pop up naturally in such systems, weird as that may seem, but Saturn is proof of that.”

Neptune's purported hexagonal wind pattern. Photo by Rolf Wahl Olsen.

Neptune’s purported hexagonal wind pattern. Photo by Rolf Wahl Olsen. Click to embiggen.

Despite the great distance between the two planets – it took Voyager 2 approximately eight years to travel from Saturn to Neptune – the two are similar in many ways.

In 2006, astronomers observed Neptune with the Keck infrared telescope and saw a bright spot at the pole, which was due to a warm “polar vortex” of methane and ethane, similar to a spectacular vortex seen on Saturn, for example.

Voyager 2 was launched in 1977, officially to study just the planetary systems of Jupiter and Saturn. However, the space probe has continued its mission.

In 2012, its counterpart, Voyager 1, became the first human-made object to enter the previously unexplored region of space known as interstellar space, traveling “further than anyone, or anything, in history.”

Voyager 2 is expected to enter interstellar space within a few years.

Among discoveries attached to the flyby of Neptune were: three complete rings and six hitherto unknown moons, as well as a planetary magnetic field and complex, widely distributed auroras.

The photos shown above aren’t real pictures of Neptune, per se, but clearly mimic what would have been seen had one been riding inside Voyager 2 as it zipped past Neptune at more than 34,000 mph, Plait reported.

(Top: Photo of Neptune taken by Rolf Wahl Olsen, via Slate.)

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