Scientists expand Saturn’s mysteries with latest Cassini discovery

Saturn’s polar vortex now appears on the North pole.

Scientists studying the planet Saturn recently discovered a new hexagonal structure which was thought to be a unique phenomenon. A massive superstorm which was first seen at the southern pole has now been detected at the northern pole with slightly varying characteristics.

Our solar system has four gas giants. Four planets whose immense size has allowed them to retain large atmospheres of gases deadly to Humans, in quantities which allow them to take on unique and often beautiful visual qualities quite different from storms on Earth. Because of their size and rotational speeds, weather on Jupiter and Saturn are more bizarre than any storms we’re familiar with.

The most famous of those gas giant superstorms is Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. A storm so massive (over 20-40 thousands miles across) sufficient to fit at least three Earth’s into it. It was first discovered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who discovered four of Saturn’s moons in 1665. He also noted the first divisions between the rings of Saturn. The Cassini Space Mission was named after him.

Not to be outdone, mighty Saturn has revealed a superstorm of its own, a towering monstrosity which appears over the polar regions of the planet, over 20,000 miles across and towering hundreds of miles high! Though first discovered when Voyager did a flyby of Saturn in the 1980s, clear pictures of the southern vortex weren’t taken until the Cassini flyby in 2004, but it wasn’t clear whether such vortices would appear anywhere else on the planet.

Planetary scientist Leigh Fletcher of the University of Leicester in the UK reported: “While we did expect to see a vortex of some kind at Saturn’s north pole as it grew warmer, its shape is really surprising. Either a hexagon has spawned spontaneously and identically at two different altitudes, one lower in the clouds and one high in the stratosphere, or the hexagon is in fact a towering structure spanning a vertical range of several hundred kilometres.”

It is theorized the storm is a ring which is formed by periodic atmospheric flows similar to the jet stream on Earth. Without land masses to block the storms or their rotation around the planet, they are able to create noticeable patterns in the gas giant’s atmosphere with a discernible regular pattern resulting in a hexagon.

Such hexagons have been replicated on Earth with little more than a spinning record and drops of water. It appears as the record spun, the water began to take on a distinctive shape as eddies formed forced the water into a hexagonal shape.

Looking at images from Cassini, such shepherding storms can be seen along the edge of the hexagon which may be the same kinds of events which were duplicated in the lab. The shepherd storms essentially indicate a possible thermal or energy barrier between the different energy levels of the rotating planet and the storm forming at the pole.

Is there more to learn? Yes. Why are the storms able to be so tall, does this mean the demarcation between the storms is central to how the atmosphere rotates around the poles? Why doesn’t Jupiter or any of the other planets get such storms? Are they intrinsic to the makeup of Saturn’s atmosphere or are they linked to its particular rotational rate?

Whatever the reason, scientists are certain the questions raised by the Cassini Legacy mission will give them plenty to discover in the years ahead.


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