Lightning strikes in a storm bigger than worlds

By Phil Plait | July 18, 2012 3:18 pm

In 2010, a storm erupted in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. It grew, and grew, and GREW, until it physically wrapped around the planet. At its peak it was 300,000 kilometers (180,000 miles) in length: 3/4 of the distance from the Earth to the Moon!

As you might expect, a storm like that might generate lightning… and even from a distance of 3.3 million km (2 million miles), the lightning flashes were bright enough that they were visible to the Cassini spacecraft:

Holy. Haleakala. [Click to encronosenate, and you want to.]

The lightning flash can be seen in the image on the left, indicated by the arrow. It happened while Cassini happened to be using a blue filter, which is why it appears to be that color. The white and tan milky clouds are from the storm itself.

The lightning has several analogies to storms here on Earth; the brightness was comparable to the brightest of terrestrial lightning strokes, and was produced in an atmospheric layer where water droplets freeze, like here as well.

But bear in mind the scale here. The head of that storm you can see in the image here is roughly the same size as our entire planet Earth. Storms like this must happen every so often on Saturn, given the odds of us happening to see one just as we also happen to have a spacecraft there that can take a really good look at it.

Always remember: when we gaze out at the objects in our solar system, and even beyond, these aren’t just static painting of long ago events, unchanging and forever frozen. They are actual worlds, dynamic and ever-shifting. And as alien as they are, there is always something analogous to Earth about them, something that will always remind us of, and teach us more about, our home.

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

Related Posts:

A Saturnian storm larger than worlds
A storm wraps around Saturn
Psychedelic Saturn storm!
Saturn broods while a storm dissipates

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

Comments (13)

  1. Matt B.

    Ooh, I wish we could drop a probe into the atmosphere to see the lightning up close.

  2. Yusuf

    Note to self: get rid of saturnine butterfly collection. ASAP!!!

  3. Grimbold

    How cool would it be to make a probe consisting of some recording instruments attached to a balloon that would float around in a giant planet’s atmosphere for a long period.

  4. reidh

    Storm? looks more like an eructation!

  5. Erik

    @ Grimbold – how cool would it be to construct a livable habitat designed to do the same, and then live in it for a while? I wonder if there would be any industrial or life sustaining use for materials skimmed from the atmosphere of such a world…

  6. Messier Tidy Upper

    In 2010, a storm erupted in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. It grew, and grew, and GREW, until it physically wrapped around the planet.

    Somebodies been reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar haven’t they? ūüėČ

  7. bubba0077

    Given that we aren’t even 100% sure how the charge separation occurs in thunderstorms on Earth, I feel like this is even more remarkable than it would appear at first glance.

  8. Georg

    Hello Cronian:

    “”[…] With a tip of the had to His Badness, Phil Plait! […]””

    You meant

    […] With a tip of the had to His Baldness, Phil Plait! […]

    didn’t You?


  9. Gary Ansorge

    So, that lightening strike was what, a thousand miles long? Wouldn’t that be a hoot, is a local sentient was standing on his doorstep and said “Izzy was right next to me when Blam, this ole lightening bolt come out of the brown and zapped his ass…boy, was he pissed…”

    Gary 7

    6. Erik … yes, nearly everything can be useful for a high tech civilization…

  10. what about the red spot on the middle part of the first picture?
    stuck/hot pixel on cassini? ūüėČ



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