NASA Scientists Witness First Polar Cyclone Observation

NASA scientists have discovered a polar cyclone on Uranus for the first time, according to a recent report published in Geophysical Research Letters. By analyzing radio waves emitted from the planet, researchers detected the phenomenon at the north pole, confirming that all planets with substantial atmospheres in our solar system exhibit signs of a swirling vortex at the poles. While scientists have long known that Uranus’ south pole has a swirling feature, this is the first time they have detected a cyclone at the planet’s north pole.

Using radio antenna dishes of the Very Large Array in New Mexico, researchers determined that the circulating air at the north pole appears to be warmer and drier, which are the hallmarks of a strong cyclone. The observations collected in 2015, 2021, and 2022 went deeper into Uranus’ atmosphere than any before. “These observations tell us a lot more about the story of Uranus. It’s a much more dynamic world than you might think,” said lead author Alex Akins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Uranus’ position in orbit has allowed scientists to have a better view of the planet since around 2015, and they have been able to look deeper into the polar atmosphere. With the new findings, cyclones or anti-cyclones have now been identified at the poles on every planet in our solar system except for Mercury, which has no substantial atmosphere.

Unlike hurricanes on Earth, cyclones on Uranus and Saturn aren’t formed over water, and they don’t drift; they’re locked at the poles. Researchers will be watching closely to see how this newly discovered Uranus cyclone evolves in the coming years. The National Academies’ 2023 Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey prioritized exploring Uranus. In preparation for such a mission, planetary scientists are focused on bolstering their knowledge about the mysterious ice giant’s system.

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