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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  

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.  

In this story:

Neptunian winds reach 600 mph

Titan could sport highlands, great basin

New technologies unravel distant mysteries


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 California-based lab.

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.

View new pictures of Neptune and Titan

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 climate.

"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 visible wavelengths.

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 basin.

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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December 21, 2000
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October 15, 1999
Commercial satellite's launch from sea is a first
October 10, 1999

Lawrence Livermore Laboratory
W.M. Keck Observatory
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