NASA released a video this week of a view of Saturn’s north pole, an area heretofore unexplored because the spacecraft Cassini, which has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004, has been unable to capture the images due to the massive planet being in it’s winter phase. But that ended in 2009. However, getting the spacecraft oriented for a north pole flyover took time, so…
According to a report by Space.com on April 29, Cassini has now accomplished the task and it has discovered something interesting at the ringed planet’s north pole. An enormous hurricane. (Actually, the hurricane was discovered in late 2012 but the flyover and subsequent video couldn’t be had until very recently.)
Stretching half a continent wide, the eye of the hurricane is 1,250 miles wide. However, unlike hurricanes on Earth, which travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles, the hurricane on Saturn is locked in placed. The gigantic storm generates winds at its edges of up to 330 miles per hour, four times the average hurricane winds on Earth.
“We did a double take when we saw this vortex because it looks so much like a hurricane on Earth,” Cassini imaging team member Andrew Ingersoll, of Caltech in Pasadena, said in a statement. “But there it is at Saturn, on a much larger scale, and it is somehow getting by on the small amounts of water vapor in Saturn’s hydrogen atmosphere.”
Like a strange work of mobile art, the hurricane is set in the center of Saturn’s hexagon, an oddly symmetrical phenomenon in Saturn’s atmosphere that is caused by strong wind currents.
The NASA video shows that the hurricane structure is amazingly similar to those same massive storms on Earth.
Scientists are hoping that by studying the giant north polar hurricane, more can be learned about the hurricanes on our own world.
Cassini continues to add to its myriad discoveries around and about the planet Saturn. Launched in 1997, the NASA probe has discovered seven new moons around the ringed gas giant, explored several of the Saturn’s satellites, deposited the Huygens lander probe onto Titan’s surface, documented the Great White Spot storm of 2010, documented and photographed Saturn’s ring system, and successfully confirmed the curvature of space (by using radio waves) as predicted by the Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Originally designed to end its mission in 2008, Cassini was been granted an extended mission.
Currently Cassini’s mission (Solstice Mission) covers several fly-bys and orbits. Cassini is scheduled to impact Saturn in 2017.