NASA has detected the first polar cyclone on Uranus

Observations to detect the first polar cyclone on Uranus. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/VLA

With the discovery, it is confirmed that all planets in the solar system that have an atmosphere generate cyclones at their poles.

Uranus, the seventh planet in the solar system, continues to amaze researchers. In the latest study dedicated to the planet, NASA scientists observed for the first time a cyclone at one of its poles. The discovery confirms one of the assumptions about planets coexisting in the same neighborhood as Earth: No matter their rocky or gaseous composition, if the planets have significant atmospheres, they will generate eddies at their poles.

The first observation of a Uranian polar cyclone was taken from Earth with the help of the Very Large Array Radio Astronomical Observatory in New Mexico. The team of researchers took readings from Uranus’s poles recorded from 2015 to create insight into internal changes within the blue planet’s dense atmosphere.

Using information from the radio waves emitted by Uranus and collected over the years at the New Mexico observatory, scientists confirmed that there are “warm and dry” air currents circulating around the North Pole. Unlike other detected planetary polar cyclones, such as Jupiter’s or Saturn’s, Uranus’s cannot be distinguished ‘with the naked eye’ due to its dense atmosphere of hydrogen, helium and methane. In fact, the cyclone found by NASA could only be visualized as a white dot at one of its poles thanks to microwave observations.

The polar spot has undergone contrast changes since the earliest records. The data, in addition to showing that there are polar cyclones on Uranus, also make it clear that seasonal patterns exist within its dense atmosphere. “These observations tell us much more about the history of Uranus. It’s a much more dynamic world than you think. It is not a simple ball of gas. There’s a lot going on below your deck,” said Alex Akins, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, research leader.

On Earth, there are polar and tropical cyclones, but on the planets Uranus, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn (one frozen, one rocky, and the rest gaseous) eddies occur only at their poles. Most of them were captured in the last decade, thanks to the most recent observation instruments, so their nature remains a mystery. Uranus has characteristics that make it unique in the solar system. The icy planet has its north and south poles on the equator so its rotational movement occurs ‘sideways’ every 17 hours. The magnetic field reversal causes Uranus’s poles to point directly at Earth and its 13 rings of cosmic debris are seen encircling the planet. The recent period of great discoveries for Uranus is no accident. The seventh planet takes 84 Earth years to go around the sun and since 2015, the planet has ‘aligned’ with Earth’s orbit. Since then, astronomers have paid attention to continue to unravel its mysteries.