Psychedelic Saturn storm!

By Phil Plait | November 17, 2011 4:11 pm

Late last year, a huge storm erupted in the clouds of Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Huge even at the beginning, it grew even larger rapidly and eventually wound itself all the way around the planet! It grew to the incredible length of 300,000 km (180,000 miles) — end-to-end, it would’ve stretched 3/4 the way from the Earth to the Moon!

The folks at the Cassini mission have just released a treasure trove of new pictures of the storm, and they are very, very cool. Check this out:

[Click to encronosenate.]

It looks like it’s a ghost running from Pacman, doesn’t it? Hmmm… maybe it is.

Taken in late December 2010, this image shows Saturn in the infrared using a combination of 3 different filters. What you see here in this false-color as white and blue are actually clouds high in the atmosphere; yellow/green are mid-level clouds, and red/orange deeper material. The rings are edge-on right in the middle, and you can see the shadow they cast on the planet. From its reddish hue, this storm was deep in Saturn’s atmosphere. it apparently has two eyes — if ever that term were accurate, it’s here — with one being deeper in the clouds than the other. Clearly, the tail had just started to form.

But it grew. A lot. A few weeks later, in January 2011, Cassini took this image:

This time, 12 separate filters in the infrared were used, but the color scheme is largely the same. The rings in this image appear bright blue, like a knife’s edge cutting across the planet. Details in the vortices are clear, and by this time the long tail of the storm was really starting to lengthen. You can also see a more traditional Saturn storm in the southern hemisphere, below the ring shadows as well.

This next picture, though, is the one that made me really smile:

This image shows two views of the storm taken 11 hours apart on February 26, 2011, to show how the system has changed during that time (much larger versions are available, too). Each picture is actually a mosaic of 84 separate images, painstakingly combined to give a complete view of this monster. The color scheme is roughly the same as the two images above: red is deep stuff, white/blue material higher up, and yellow/green in the middle. The exception is the blue oval to the far right; that’s actually a deep hole in the atmosphere and is quite cold, so it absorbs and reflects light differently than the other layers in the storm.

More of these amazing images are available at the Cassini website.

The storm died down over the summer, though its impact can still be seen as turbulence in Saturn’s clouds even now. I’ll note that at its largest, it had a surface area eight times that of the Earth! It’ll be some time (if ever) before everything about this storm is understood. How did it form? Why did it grow so large? How did it wind up (literally) winding itself around the planet? How often do gigantic storms like this form? Are they unique to Saturn, or could the other giant planets get them?

And I’ll also note that this storm was not discovered by Cassini, but instead first spotted by sharp-eyed "amateur" astronomers. Obviously, it would’ve been seen by Cassini scientists quickly enough, but sometimes there’s no substitute for an eye to the eyepiece…

… and, of course, there’s no substitute for being there, too. Storms like this are rare, and it was a good thing that not only was Cassini there to give scientists this cornucopia of data, but that the mission has been so long-lived. I certainly hope it continues for years to come. Saturn is an astonishing, dynamic, gorgeous, and fantastic place to be, and the longer we stay, the more we’ll learn.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


Related posts:

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Epic lightning storm electrocuting Saturn for eight months
Behold, Saturn!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Saturn

Comments (26)

Links to this Post

  1. Monster Storm…On Saturn | November 17, 2011
  2. Las Tormentas de Saturno. | Pablo Della Paolera | November 18, 2011
  1. When I was a kid (before your time, Phil) I remember reading that Saturn was considered the most beautiful planet. I disagreed with this thinking that while the rings were cool and all that, the surface seemed pretty bland compared to Jupiter. Back then the biggest telescope was the Hale 200″ telescope on Mount Palomar and so images of Saturn weren’t all that spectacular. Even with Voyager and Pioneer, I didn’t change my opinion. But Cassini has definitely changed my mind. Jupiter is still gorgeous but the pictures of Saturn like those above, have created such awe at the beauty and spectacle of the sixth planet that I’m always delighted by what gets sent back. Not to mention that incredibly beautiful picture of back lit Saturn. It’s still my favorite astronomical picture.

  2. Gregory Ruderman

    I’m no planetary scientist (darn), but how do we know that this is really a “storm” in the sense that I would think of one here on earth? It looks much more like something is upwelling from deep within the planet and the plume is interacting with the “surface” atmosphere. In that sense, it would be more like the effect of a volcano than a weather phenomenon. Maybe Saturn had a core-cano (corequake)? and we’re just seeing the very top of the plume?

  3. CH

    Hi there – how deep is the deep blue hole on the right of the storm mosaic?

  4. Ricky

    What does “In False Color” mean?

  5. D.Rose

    @Ricky
    “In false-color” means the image isn’t being presented in the colors you’d see with the naked eye if you were there. In these infrared (light beyond the red the Human eye can see; also know/felt as heat) images of Saturn Phil is sharing with us, the colors represent cloud heights with warm colors (red/orange) being deeper clouds and cooler colors (blue/white) being higher in the atmosphere. In this context, the color scheme makes sense: The deeper you go, the warmer it gets.

  6. Crux Australis

    Just like MRIs or thermal images are shown in false colour. The colours are there to show contrast, or highlight features we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.

  7. Calli Arcale

    Gregory – storms on Earth are *also* plumes rising up through layers of the atmosphere. It typically requires a massive updraft to get them started, and that can punch through the top of the troposphere (which is why the top of a thunderhead shears off into that anvil shape).

  8. Infinite123Lifer

    This is so cool!

  9. Just wow. Trippy! 8)

    Pyschedelic is certainly the word for this Saturnean storm.

  10. Ricky

    @D.Rose thanks for the detailed explanation. That helps to make more sense.

  11. Wow, 300 000km is one light second! It’s really huge.

  12. Mephane

    I have eventually come to the conclusion that giant storms like these might be commonplace on gas giants. Sure, not everyone of them has one all the time, but now we know of such enormouse storms happening on Jupiter (Red Spot!), Saturn and Neptune. Now also considering the short timeframe of observation we had, I would think that storms of this kind could be something to be expected to show up from time to time on a gas giant.

    Now let’s just imagine what a Kardeshev I civilization might be able do if it could harness the amounts of energy in such a storm…

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Mephane : Wind turbine farms on super-sized zeppelins floating in the gas giants atmospheres?

    Incidentally, I could be mistaken but I think I read / heard somewhere (TV or video doco series?) that windspeeds inside the outer planets atmospheres actually increase the further out you go; ie. Saturn being far windier than Jupiter* and Neptune having the highest windspeeds of all. Although, Ouranos might perhaps be the exception to that as it seems unusally cool and inactive in comparison with the other gas giants?

    * I was going to add ” .. only with less dramatic & colourful storms” thinking of the Great Red Spot and Jovian bands versus Saturn’s plainer butterscotch clouds – but then I remembered the images that created are this thread and topic and, nup, just can’t tenably say that now! ;-)

  14. Joseph G

    Whoah… groovy.

  15. Gregory Ruderman

    @Calli–
    I think I was less than clear in what I was asking as I ran out of the office yesterday afternoon. I understand that storms themselves are major upwellings, but I was wondering what the ultimate source was. You can see beautiful pictures of von Karman vortex streets coming off of terrestrial mountains, and those wakes can clearly be seen for a long distance, but you wouldn’t make the argument that the entire length is anything but a local effect and a wake. So I guess my question is, is it true that the storm “wrapped itself around the planet”, or was it a more localized phenomenon whose downstream effects could be seen. The cause of the upwelling was a bit of a red herring in my comment, I guess.

  16. Douglas Troy

    Looks like what happens when I pour creamer into my coffee in the morning, which can mean only one thing … that’s right, Saturn is obviously made of coffee.

  17. Phil, you’re probably going to get sick of my posts rather quickly if you read them at all, but here goes: the storm was first spotted by Iranian amateur astronomer Sadegh Ghomizadeh on the evening of December 8-9, 2010: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/highlights/112507364.html However instruments on the Cassini spacecraft detected lightning from the storm days before.

    Also, nothing has been discovered on the planets using an eyepiece since the early 80’s. Everything discovered by amateurs on the planets for the last decade or so has been first spotted digitally using cameras (including this storm). The only thing still discovered today in astronomy using an eyeball at the eyepiece of a telescope has been comets.

  18. Sam H

    @17 Gregory: This is similar to my thinking – to me it’s obvious that the longitudal “wrapping” phenomenon is simply the wake of the storm being blown around the planet by the 1700+ km/hr easterly winds, although the active system itself appears to be pretty elongated as well (again, this is probably due to stretching caused by the winds). I dunno where the storm would be originating from, but my guess is from below the ammonia clouds.

    @18: There’s COFFEE in that thunderhead!!! ;)

  19. beerclark

    #2 Gregory: I agree with you. This looks like something other then a storm.

    #13 Mephane: I would only disagree due to the effects of these storms. Jupiter’s storms are nothing like this storm happening on Saturn… at least visually. The Great Red Spot is much larger then Saturn’s storm and yet it shows very little disruption in the clouds of Jupiter. If you even look at the picture, Saturn itself has a much larger storm in its southern half yet it barley changes its surroundings.

    Anyway, as far as I have seen, I thought these storms are still a bit of a mystery. If anyone knows of a concrete explanation…please share!

  20. marty

    A quick search for a definition of encronosenate was unsuccessful. What does it mean?

  21. Infinite123Lifer

    For#21 beerclark:

    Reference comment #7 maybe?

    Surely the disruption being observed here qualifies as a storm?
    That’s a question ;)

    Alien’s making pretty art? Jk

    I wonder if comet Shoemaker-Levy 9’s run-in with Jupiter could shed any light on the possibility of this being impact related?

  22. flip

    @Marty, #22,

    It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a fun reference to ‘embiggen’, the made-up word from The Simpsons, in this case Phil is using a made-up word instead of ‘enlarge’ or ‘magnify’. Phil is known to use a range of nonsensical terms in exchange of a real one when inviting people to view the images.

  23. Georg

    The 2looks” of this storm is a so called “Karman vortex street”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%A1rm%C3%A1n_vortex_street

    My “theory” is, that well below the upper (visible) layers of atmosphere is some
    storm (or other thing) resulting in a strong upwell of gas. This lower levels seem to rotate slower than the upper layers, thus working like an obstacle in the
    visible layer, causing that Karman street.
    Georg

  24. James Cappio

    @flip 24, like all of Phil’s plays on “embiggen,” “encronosenate” in fact means something. In Greek mythology, the father of the Olympian gods was Cronos; his Roman counterpart is–that’s right, Saturn! So “encronosenate” means something like “Saturnize.”

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