Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune

The atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune have not been probed by unmanned space vehicles, but they have been studied spectroscopically from the earth, revealing that, like Jupiter and Saturn, they are mostly hydrogen (about 84 percent) and helium (about 14 percent). Methane makes up about 3 percent of Neptune’s atmosphere, and 2 percent of Uranus’s, but ammonia is far less in abundance on either planet than on Jupiter and Saturn. Because Uranus and Neptune are colder and have much lower atmospheric pressure than the larger planets, any ammonia present is frozen. The lack of ammonia in the atmosphere and the significant presence of methane give both Uranus and Neptune a bluish appearance, since methane absorbs red light and reflects blue. Uranus, with slightly less methane than Neptune, is blue-green, while Neptune is quite blue.
Uranus reveals almost no atmospheric features. Those that are there are submerged under layers of haze. Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2, reveals more atmospheric features and even some storm systems, including a Great Dark Spot, an area of storm comparable in size to the earth. Discovered by Voyager 2 in 1989, the Great Dark Spot had vanished by the time the Hubble Space Telescope observed the planet in 1994.

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