July 5, 2022

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Telescopes reveal why Neptune is blueer than Uranus

New space and ground-based telescope observations have revealed what is behind this difference in tone.

In our solar system, the farthest planets from the Sun, Neptune and Uranus, have similar sizes, masses, and atmospheric conditions. Neptune has a bright blue appearance when looking at two possible planets side by side after NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew in the 1980s. Uranus is the pale shade of blue.

Using both the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii and NASA’s Infrared Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers developed a model compatible with the observations of Neptune and Uranus.

Scientists have determined that excess fog has accumulated in the atmosphere of Uranus, giving it a lighter appearance. This fog is thicker in Uranus than the similar layer of atmosphere in Neptune, so it whitens the appearance of Uranus in our view.

Astronomers believe that without this fog in the atmospheres of the two planets, the two planets would be almost identical in blue. A study describing the findings published on Tuesday Geophysical Research Journal: Planets.

Previous attempts to understand this difference have focused on the upper atmosphere of the planets at specific wavelengths of light.

“This is the first model to synchronize sunlight from ultraviolet rays to near-infrared,” said Patrick Irwin, a senior research professor and professor of planetary physics at the University of Oxford. He was the first to describe the visible color difference between Uranus and Neptune.

The model also studied deep layers of the atmosphere containing fog particles and clouds of methane and hydrogen sulfide.

The new observations of the Gemini North telescope, located near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, have been incorporated into other archive telescope data. The team studied three layers of aerosols at different altitudes in Uranus and Neptune. The middle layer of fog particles is most affected by color.

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On both planets, the middle layer of space where methane ice turns into methane rain. Neptune has a more turbulent atmosphere than the slow, dull Uranus atmosphere, so methane particles and hail prevent Neptune from accumulating fog on the planet.

Scientists hope this model could help explain why black dots appear on Neptune, but less so on Uranus. Because the deeper layer of the atmosphere is darker, it will be more noticeable on the planet Neptune.

“We hope that creating this model will help us understand clouds and fog in the atmosphere of the ice giant,” Mike Wong, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. “Explaining the color differences between Uranus and Neptune is an unexpected bonus!”

Learn more about these mysterious worlds that were only visited during Voyager 2 fast flights.

The Decadal Survey of the Planets, published in April, recommended the first practice NASA’s next major mission is the Uranus Orbiter and exploration. The authors of the report see Uranus Orbiter & Probe as a way to revolutionize the knowledge that astronomers have about ice giants.