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Time variability of Neptune's horizontal and vertical cloud structure revealed by VLT/SINFONI and Gemini/NIFS from 2009 to 2013

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journal contribution
posted on 2016-03-03, 12:18 authored by P. G. J. Irwin, Leigh Nicholas Fletcher, D. Tice, S. J. Owen, G. S. Orton, N. A. Teanby, G. R. Davis
New observations of Neptune’s clouds in the near infrared were acquired in October 2013 with SINFONI on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. SINFONI is an Integral Field Unit spectrometer returning a 64 × 64 pixel image with 2048 wavelengths. Image cubes in the J-band (1.09–1.41 µm) and H-band (1.43–1.87 µm) were obtained at spatial resolutions of 0.1″and 0.025″per pixel, while SINFONI’s adaptive optics provided an effective resolution of approximately 0.1″. Image cubes were obtained at the start and end of three successive nights to monitor the temporal development of discrete clouds both at short timescales (i.e. during a single night) as well as over the longer period of the three-day observing run. These observations were compared with similar H-band observations obtained in September 2009 with the NIFS Integral Field Unit spectrometer on the Gemini-North telescope in Hawaii, previously reported by Irwin et al. (2011) [Icarus, 216, 141–158], and previously unreported Gemini/NIFS observations at lower spatial resolution made in 2011. We find both similarities and differences between these observations, spaced over four years. The same overall cloud structure is seen with high, bright clouds visible at mid-latitudes (30–40°N,S), with slightly lower clouds observed at lower latitudes, together with small discrete clouds seen circling the pole at a latitude of approximately 60°S. However, while discrete clouds were visible at this latitude at both the main cloud deck level (at 2–3 bar) and in the upper troposphere (100–500 mb) in 2009, no distinct deep (2–3 bar), discrete circumpolar clouds were visible in 2013, although some deep clouds were seen at the southern edge of the main cloud belt at 30–40°S, which have not been observed before. The nature of the deep sub-polar discrete clouds observed in 2009 is intriguing. While it is possible that in 2013 these deeper clouds were masked by faster moving, overlying features, we consider that it is unlikely that this should have happened in 2013, but not in 2009 when the upper-cloud activity was generally similar. Meanwhile, the deep clouds seen at the southern edge of the main cloud belt at 30–40°S in 2013, should also have been detectable in 2009, but were not seen. Hence, these observations may have detected a real temporal variation in the occurrence of Neptune’s deep clouds, pointing to underlying variability in the convective activity at the pressure of the main cloud deck at 2–3 bar near Neptune’s south pole and also in the main observable cloud belt at 30–40°S.



Icarus 271 (2016) 418–437

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/Organisation/COLLEGE OF SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING/Department of Physics and Astronomy


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Icarus 271 (2016) 418–437


Elsevier for Academic Press Inc.



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