September 23, 2023
North Polar Cyclones - Juno

Uranus Reveals First Direct Evidence of a Polar Cyclone

Scientists have made an intriguing discovery on Uranus, revealing the first direct evidence of a polar cyclone on the planet. Published in Geophysical Research Letters on May 28, the study reports the detection of a cyclone at Uranus’ north pole, shedding light on the planet’s atmospheric dynamics. This finding follows previous indications of a similar storm at the south pole observed during a spacecraft flyby.

The newfound polar cyclone has generated excitement among researchers, who highlight the unique opportunity to study this structure in unprecedented detail. Michael Roman, a planetary scientist from the University of Leicester, expressed enthusiasm, stating that this observation offers a fresh perspective on a phenomenon that has never been thoroughly investigated before.

The initial clues pointing to the presence of a cyclone on Uranus were provided by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1986. The data showed that winds at the center of the planet’s south pole were moving faster than in surrounding areas and exhibited a rotational pattern, hinting at the existence of a cyclonic storm. However, the instruments onboard Voyager 2 were not sensitive enough to confirm this observation definitively.

In recent years, as Uranus’ north pole turned more towards Earth, scientists had the opportunity to explore the other side of the ice giant, where they observed similar signs of a swirling storm. By utilizing the Very Large Array (VLA) radio observatory located in New Mexico, planetary scientist Alex Akins and his team investigated the temperature below Uranus’ clouds to gather additional atmospheric information. The researchers found a spot at the north pole where the gas beneath the clouds was warmer and drier than its surroundings, indicating the presence of a low-pressure region within the spinning winds. Akins compared the observed contrasts to features seen in hurricanes on Earth.

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This discovery means that, apart from Mercury, all the planets in our solar system have now been observed to host some form of swirling air mass at their poles. Akins plans to continue monitoring the cyclone to track its changes. Previous observations from 2015 suggest that the storm is becoming stronger, challenging scientists’ understanding of Uranus’ atmospheric circulation and urging further investigation.

In 2022, experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that NASA send a dedicated probe to Uranus to gather more comprehensive data about the planet. The recent discovery of the polar cyclone reinforces the significance of studying Uranus in greater detail to refine mission planning and deepen our understanding of this enigmatic planet.