Hurricane season on Saturn

Contributed by
Nov 10, 2006

This eerily organic picture is not of some disgusting orifice, but actually an 8000-kilometer-wide hurricane... on Saturn! And if that's not cool enough, it's at Saturn's south pole.

Still not cool enough? Then check out this movie of it (MPG, also available in QT)! The images to make the movies were taken by the Cassini probe, still orbiting Saturn and hammering away at it, grabbing all the science it can.

What makes this storm interesting to scientists is that it has an eyewall, like hurricanes on Earth. No hurricane with an actual eyewall has been seen on another planet. Also, the storm stays put: it squats over the Saturnian Antarctic, and doesn't move like terrestrial hurricanes do.

Ah, another mystery in space! Yay!

So planetary scientists will be scratching their heads over this one for a while. They have plenty of clues at hand to try to figure this out. For one, the storm clouds reach up to 30-75 kilometers high (on Earth, that would be like 10-20) -- if you look at the picture and video, you can see those clouds casting shadows inside the hurricane! Also, the air over the middle of the storm is clear, allowing a view deeper into Saturn's atmosphere than usual-- about twice as deep. Infrared observations from Earth show the south pole region to be about 2 degree Celsius warmer than surrounding air; another clue.

Could this be a seasonal storm? Maybe. As Cassini continues to peer at the ringed planet we'll learn more and more, not just of what Saturn's like, but also how its behavior changes over time. It's a weird place, and there's a lot of stuff left to figure out.

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