An aerial view of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal in Chile's sparsely populated Atacama Desert

ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal in Chile's sparsely populated Atacama Desert. The world’s most advanced ground-based facility for astronomy, the site hosts four 8.2-metre unit telescopes, four 1.8-metre auxiliary telescopes, the VLT Survey Telescope (VST), and the 4.1-metre Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), seen in the distance on the next mountain peak over from the main platform. This aerial view also shows other structures, including the Observatory Control Room building, on the main platform’s front edge.

Credit: JL Dauvergne & G Hüdepohl (

New insights into Neptune's dark spot

Exoplanets and planetary physics
Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics

Astronomers, led by Professor Patrick Irwin from the University of Oxford, have observed a large dark spot in Neptune’s atmosphere, with an unexpected smaller bright spot adjacent to it.

Professor Irwin and his group used a rich new dataset from the European Southern Observatory’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE), part of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to investigate what causes Neptune’s dark spots to be visible. The group used the data to rule out the possibility that dark spots appear simply due to a clearing in the clouds. The new observations indicate that instead, dark spots are likely the result of air particles darkening in a layer below the main visible haze layer as ices and hazes mix in Neptune’s atmosphere.

Until now, all that was known was that these short-lived and elusive dark spots, previously observed by Voyager 2 in 1989 and more recently by the Hubble Space Telescope, are dark at blue wavelengths and invisible at red and longer wavelengths. The most recent dark spot, NDS-2018, was first observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2018 and it is this spot that has been studied by Professor Irwin’s team. This is the first time a dark spot on Neptune has ever been observed from a ground-based telescope and also the first time its continuous, visible reflection spectrum has been measured. It is the measurement of this reflection spectrum that has allowed Professor Irwin’s team to rule out the cloud-clearing scenario. In the process of analysing the dark spot observation, the group also discovered a rare deep bright spot, or cloud type, near NDS-2018 that has never been previously detected – even from space.

MUSE’s adaptive optics

As a hyperspectral imager, the MUSE instrument was fundamental to this work – not least due to its adaptive optics (AO). Professor Irwin explains: ‘Neptune is very small as seen from the ground and we would never be able to see small features such as dark spots without the AO system which corrects for the blurring of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time.’

He continues: ‘The final processed MUSE data reveal detail at a scale almost as good as data from the Hubble Space Telescope but, unlike Hubble imaging data, the MUSE data give a spectrum at every pixel. This spectral data enabled us to pick out the reflection spectrum of the dark spot itself and quantify how it is different from other locations on the planet.’

Professor Irwin’s group first accessed the data from MUSE in 2019 and found that an additional tranche of work was required to interpret it – the spatial resolution, although high from MUSE, wasn’t high enough at short wavelengths to clearly detect the spot. They developed a spatial deconvolution algorithm to improve the spatial resolution and were then able to make the first ever measurement of the complete reflection spectrum of a dark spot.

Newly detected small bright spot

Professor Irwin’s group recently concluded that there are two distinct layers of cloud and haze on Neptune: one at the level where methane condenses (1-2 bar) and one at deeper levels (~5 bar) where hydrogen sulphide is believed to condense. From the shape of the dark spot spectrum, the group were able to show that it must be due to a spectrally-dependent darkening of the deeper layer of aerosol in Neptune’s atmosphere at about the 5-bar pressure level, which is assumed to be composed of a mixture of H2S ice and photochemically-produced haze that has been mixed down from above. The group also report the detection of a small bright spot near NDS-2018; this is shown to be caused by a spectrally-dependent brightening of the very same aerosol layer. This makes it very different from the usual ‘companion’ clouds that are often seen near dark spots, and which are thought to be methane ice clouds based much higher in the atmosphere (0.2-0.6 bar).

‘Now we know the pressure level at which dark spots – and the new deep bright companion – are based, and what makes them dark, we have much tighter constraints to place on dynamical models on Neptune’s atmospheric circulation,’ explains Professor Irwin. ‘This may help us to understand better how large anticyclonic vortices such as Neptune’s dark spots, but also more famous features, such as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, form and are sustained.’

NDS-2018 has now vanished so the next step would be to observe a similar occurrence and compare datasets. ‘It is astonishing how far we have come,’ concludes Dr Mike Wong, one of the paper’s co-authors. ‘At first we could only detect these spots by sending a spacecraft up, then we were able to make them out remotely as with Hubble and now, technology has advanced to enable us to observe such phenomena from the ground.’

Spectral determination of the colour and vertical structure of dark spots in Neptune’s atmosphere, P Irwin et al, Nature Astronomy, 24 August 2023

Dark spot on Neptune observed with MUSE at the VLT

This animation shows Neptune observed with the MUSE instrument at ESO’s Very Large Telescope. At each pixel within Neptune, MUSE splits the incoming light into its constituent colours or wavelengths. This is similar to obtaining images at thousands of different wavelengths all at once, which provides a wealth of valuable information to astronomers.

The first image in this animation combines all colours captured by MUSE into a “natural” view of Neptune, where a dark spot can be seen to the upper-right. Then we see images at specific wavelengths: 551 nanometres (blue), 831 nm (green), and 848 nm (red); note that the colours are only indicative, for display purposes.

The dark spot is most prominent at shorter (bluer) wavelengths. Right next to this dark spot MUSE also captured a small bright one, seen here only in the middle image at 831 nm and located deep in the atmosphere. This type of deep bright cloud had never been identified before on the planet. The images also show several other shallower bright spots towards the bottom-left edge of Neptune, seen at long wavelengths.

Imaging Neptune’s dark spot from the ground was only possible thanks to the VLT’s Adaptive Optics Facility, which corrects the blur caused by atmospheric turbulence and allows MUSE to obtain crystal clear images. To better highlight the subtle dark and bright features on the planet, the astronomers carefully processed the MUSE data, obtaining what you see here.

Credit: ESO/P. Irwin et al.