Imagining weather on other planets is a close reality

Wednesday, July 27, 2016, 3:57 PM – Everything starts with imagination.

Once firmly in the realm of science fiction, the weather on our closest neighboring worlds now exists as fact, thanks to science and technology.

It began with the first speculation of what lay beneath the cloudy skies of Venus, which told the story of tropical jungles, teeming with life and just waiting for the first explorers from Earth to act upon imagination and discover what was hidden away there.

However, when robotic missions of the 1960s and 1970s not only visited Venus, but landed there, they abruptly thrust aside the paradise of imagination and replaced it with the reality of the science that showed it to be a barren, hellish landscape. With its thick, scorching atmosphere – the hottest of any world in our solar system – under layers of burning acid clouds, Venus remains a fascinating place that gives us a glimpse at the extremes of the universe.

But imagination never sleeps and soon Mars occupied our senses. Already imagined by astronomers to be a dry, dusty world, some of the most famous observations of Mars hinted at grand canals, built by aliens to transport water from the polar ice caps to their parched civilization.

Now, after over 50 years of Mars exploration via spacecraft in orbit, as well as landers and rovers on the surface, we actually have the means to monitor weather on the Red Planet. The information sent back by these missions confirmed what was imagined, that Mars is a desolate, dusty place, but also that the planet was much warmer and wetter, more Earth-like, in the distant past.

Sunset on Mars. (File)

Sunset on Mars. (File)

Again, imagination lead us deeper into the solar system, in search of tomorrow’s answers.

Robotic explorers sent to the outer solar system and beyond, from the Pioneer and Voyager missions of the 1970s, up to the most recent spacecraft, have been beaming back better and clearer pictures of the planets there, and the incredible weather that takes place on these distant worlds.

Revealed in ever-increasing detail by flybys and an orbital mission, Jupiter’s cloud bands have resolved into mesmerizingly complex patterns, and its giant anticyclonic storm – the Great Red Spot – which has been visible from Earth for at least 400 years, has been imaged and studied, and was actually found to be shrinking!

The latest visitor to Jupiter, NASA’s Juno spacecraft, is there to study the environment around the planet, and deep inside it, but will also spend considerable time and effort examining the cloud bands and the Great Red Spot, so that we can learn even more about how weather works in such extreme environments.

Saturn’s rings have always captured the imagination of astronomers, however NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has shown us the planet’s subtly beautiful clouds and its bizarre north polar hexagon, which has a vortex at its core that could swallow the Earth. It even documented something never before seen: an immense hurricane-like storm that spun up in late 2010 that, over a period of six months, wrapped completely around the planet!

Even Uranus and Neptune, the so called “ice giant” planets of our solar system, which haven’t been visited in decades now, were revealed to have surprising weather extremes.

Recently, we’ve discovered weather either where we didn’t expect to find it, or that we couldn’t have imagined studying in years past.

On Ceres, the largest denizen of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft spotted what could be fog, at the bottom of the giant crater known as Occator. Plus, on Pluto, which the New Horizons spacecraft flew past in July 2015, the backlit atmosphere revealed layers of blue haze hanging in the thin air, and it may have even found evidence of low-level clouds!

Perhaps most incredible, astronomers have recently used telescopes to collect the light from planets orbiting around distant stars, which has revealed what the atmospheres of these planets are like.

While everything we learn about these distant worlds is applied to our knowledge of Earth weather, it also fuels our imagination, to drive us further in our exploration of the universe and the answers of tomorrow that it holds.

[Source:- The weather network]

Tags: , , , , , , , ,