Epic lightning storm electrocuting Saturn… for eight months

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2009 5:03 am

[Update to my note; the blog software upgrade is tomorrow, Wednesday, not today. Sorry for the confusion, BABloggees! The Hive Overmind is doing a blog upgrade today from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern time, and during that period commenting will be turned off. Don’t panic!]

Scientists using data from the Cassini spacecraft have found something amazing: a lightning storm on Saturn that’s lasted for nearly eight months! And it’s still going.

Long lasting storms on planets aren’t unusual; the Great Red Spot on Jupiter is at least 400 years old! But active lightning storms are more difficult to detect… unless you happen to be close by. Giant lightning bolts create vast discharges of radio energy, and Cassini’s has an instrument sensitive to them. It’s been monitoring Saturn for about five years now, and has seen lots of lightning storms. The previous record holder was 7.5 months, for a system that lasted from November 2007 to July of last year.

This new one has been raging since February, and shows no signs of abating. Storms on Saturn are a bit more violent than on Earth: they can be 3000 km (1800 miles) across, and discharge energy at rates 10,000 times higher than storms here on Earth!


Lightning on Saturn
Cassini image of a lightning storm from July 2008.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Sure, this stuff is cool — giant killer electrical storms , woohoo! — but it’s also science. As these waves of energy plow through Saturn’s ionosphere, scientists can use them to map out the structure of Saturn’s environment and learn how the giant planet behaves. That’s really the whole point, of course.

That, plus planet-spanning disaster-movie sized lightning storms! Cooooool.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (27)

Links to this Post

  1. Go Go Rocket Party » Blog Archive » Sunday Science Sermon | September 25, 2009
  1. Illanoy Gal

    That is a far worse storm than any I ever saw as in kid is Central Illinois!! I love to watch lightning but I don’t think I would ever want to be anywhere near one on Saturn.

    Now a question. Would you please tell what satellite is crossing Saturn in the picture?

    Thank you. :-)

  2. Grand Lunar

    And I thought lightning storms were bad here in Florida!

  3. Brian Schlosser

    Egghead: “Mr President, the Saturn storms have intensified!”

    The President: “What does that mean for us?”

    Egghead: “The lightening will reach the Earth in less than a day!”

    The President: “Good God… What can we do?”

    Egghead: “Pray for a miracle sir… pray for a miracle.”

    President: “Theres no time for miracles… Get me Storm Slabchest! We’ll fight the Saturn lightening there before we have to fight it here!”

    LIGHTNING STORM, the new film by Roland Emmerich, coming next fall!

  4. It makes me wonder how bad they are on some of those really massive exoplanets.

  5. Michelle

    Am I the only one who thinks this picture is very slick? I think Saturn looks beautiful. It’s all subtle.

    …Well, the planet’s subtle. Not the Comic Sans.

  6. Plutonium being from Pluto

    plus planet-spanning disaster-movie sized lightning storms! Cooooool.

    This storm strikes me as being wa-aay bigger than anything a mere disaster movie could come up with! 😉

    “Cooool” indeed, I suspect its temperature is well below freezing given its location even allowing for some heating up via lightning. Awesome. 8)

    THX BA.

  7. StevoR

    So how many worlds is that with confirmed lightning detections then?

    Earth of course & I believe Jupiter has had thunderstorms detected at least via radio.
    Venus too as well as I recall reading something about that years ago.

    Has lightning been detected /confirmed /theorised for Mars, for Neptune & Ouranos, for Pluto (it does have an atmosphere & even snowfall y’know) and for others? Titan? Exoplanets? Anywhere else?

  8. o rly

    That’s such an amazing picture, what moon is that?

  9. Quiet Desperation

    learn how the giant planet behaves

    Not well. Sounds like Saturn needs a time out.

  10. jf

    @ o rly
    It is Tethys.

    Just click on the picture. It takes you to http://ciclops.org/view/5066/Peace_Above_Turmoil_Below where it says so in the first word of the first paragraph.

  11. Wow. That plasmatical storm must generate huge Berkowitz currents. :)

  12. If you click on the pic, it takes you to the website, and the site identifies the moon as Tethys. That is an amazing image. I also think Saturn is one of the most beautiful objects visible through a small telescope.

  13. Charles Boyer

    I just worry for the giants. Granted, thunderstorms are dangerous, but giant killer electrical storms are simply tragic.

  14. CW

    I noticed this picture was black and white, and then read Gregg Easterbrook’s ESPN column (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=easterbrook/090915&sportCat=nfl) where he wondered why photographs from space are made in grayscale. He referenced an article here: http://www.slate.com/id/2227828

    Is the reason why photographs are made in grayscale have to do with conserving bandwidth?

  15. busterggi

    This explains why there are no trees of Saturn.

    Probably no umbrellas either.

  16. BKM

    Wow! I bet they have Global Warming on Saturn causing weather that is different than what is “normal.” Hmmm…does that mean they have cars and factories emitting bad gas??? Could there be life on Saturn???

  17. 3. Brian Schlosser Says:

    Egghead: “Mr President, the Saturn storms have intensified!”

    [ deleted]
    President: “Theres no time for miracles… Get me Storm Slabchest! We’ll fight the Saturn lightening there before we have to fight it here!”

    LIGHTNING STORM, the new film by Roland Emmerich, coming next fall!

    Didn’t ‘Syfy’ just do something very similar last weekend? (Not that I watch their ‘saturday original’ movies)


  18. ColvilleMark

    @ o rly
    That’s no moon….getting my hat 😛

  19. gss_000


    I don’t believe it’s been seen for the outer planets you mentioned, although I could be wrong.

    As for Mars, it has been seen. Not only indirectly, but directly for the first time, as announced this past June.

    Here’s the PR:

  20. Michael Kingsford Gray

    I’m guessing that the scientists are using these lightning bolts as a form of ready-made radar ‘ping’ generator, whose electromagnetic (& mechanical) disturbances are reflected from various layers around it?

  21. Rawley

    I wonder how many jigga-watts those lightning bolts have.

  22. I wonder how many jigga-watts those lightning bolts have.


  23. mike burkhart

    I think the weather on other planets is interresting . It is often stranger and wilder then weather on earth is consider globeal dust storms that mars has every once and a wile, huracains (including the red spot ) on jupiter that last for 100s of years , Ive read thats it rains amonia on venus and even the sun has magnetic storms . Its enough to give a weather forcaster fits.

  24. Phd.Hyper D

    I see that the moderator of this site is a paid operative for a certain cabal. My messages are important fore some to see and I understand that everyone believes that they are the only authority on proper science,but it just is not true, Shame on you.

  25. Phd.Hyper D

    Yippee, The Ball of energy coming is going to kill most of you idiots, how do you think all of the cities/villages got buried on this planet. Ha,Ha, Ha, . Maybe youre resident guru will fill you in…..probably not

  26. krustan

    wwwwooooooooaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh talk bout kool


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