Sunday, May 5, 2013
Giant Hurricane at Saturn's North Pole
Astronomers working with the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn have taken a wonderful close-up picture in visible light of a giant storm at the exact North Pole of Saturn. On the FALSE COLOR image here, you can see the hurricane in red color right in the center. This giant storm is about 1250 miles wide (roughly 20 times the size of the eye of a typical earthly hurricane). Like sodas in the movie theaters, weather on the giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn comes only in super sizes .
(To be fair, this is not the first time we are seeing this storm. But now that summer sunlight is reaching the north pole of Saturn, we can actually see the storm in greater detail in visible light.)
Wind speeds at the edge of the storm are being measured at 330 miles per hour, so hold on to your hat if you intend to go windsurfing there.
Also on the current picture, in pale greenish color, you can see the mysterious hexagon of flowing gas that surrounds Saturn's north pole. This hexagon is about twice the size of planet Earth in diameter! The strange shape of this "jet-stream-like" feature is thought to be the result of complicated waves colliding in the upper atmosphere of the ringed planet.
Another storm is visible in teal color at the lower right, and -- in this false color view -- the rings of Saturn are an intense blue color in the upper right. (You can see the many ringlets that make up the rings. Bear in mind that each ringlet is composed of millions of chunks of ice, all staying in a regular traffic pattern around the equator of Saturn.)
Why is the image presented in false color? I think the Cassini astronomers themselves will be the first to tell you they make such images in part because they are beautiful. But also, in this case, color gives a sense of how high in the atmosphere you are looking. The reddish features are deeper down and the greenish ones float higher up.
Want to see the hurricane move? There is a wonderful short movie with good narration by astronomer Andrew Ingersoll that has been assembled at:http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/archive/PIA14944_640.mov
(You will need the free Quicktime player on your computer to see it and a little time for it to load.)
For readers who are more technically oriented, a nice discussion of a possible explanation for why the jet stream takes the shape of a hexagon can be found in one of Emily Lakdawalla's columns at: http://www.planetary.org/blogs/emily-lakdawalla/2010/2471.html