Saturn storm cranks the heat WAY up

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2012 7:00 am

In late 2010, amateur astronomers discovered a white spot on Saturn – a gigantic storm forming in its northern hemisphere. The storm grew rapidly, and within weeks had embiggened to an almost unbelievable size, much larger than our entire planet. The winds in Saturn’s atmosphere sheared the storm, pulling it apart while it still raged, and after three months the storm had wrapped completely around the planet, stretched to the ridiculous length of 300,000 km (180,000 miles) – 3/4 of the distance from the Earth to the Moon!

By mid-2011 the storm had nearly subsided – its remnants could still be seen in images taken by the Cassini spacecraft orbiting the ringed world – but the teeth had been taken out of it. Still, there was one surprise left in it.

Observations taken in the infrared by Cassini as well as from Earth show that the storm was not just big and violent, it also formed a vortex (a storm within a storm, if you like) that got hot – well, hot for frigid Saturn, that is. In the heart of the system, the temperature rose by an incredible 80° Celsius – a difference in temperature that’s like starting in the depths of winter in Anchorage, Alaska and then going to the height of summer in the Sahara!

The image here [click to encronosenate] is from the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and was taken in the infrared, where the heat in the vortex is fairly obvious. Mind you, it’s not like it was a firestorm: the maximum temperature was still a chilly -150° Celsius, but compared to Saturn’s usual -220 or so degrees, that’s pretty dang hot.

The rise in temperature was unexpected. A 20° rise is about the usual fare for these things, but then, this wasn’t a usual storm. Apparently, this hot spot started as two separate vortices, spawned by the storm seen in visible light, and moving around the planet at slightly different speeds. They eventually merged, forming this one ginormous vortex, which at its biggest was over 62,000 km (38,000 miles) across. Interestingly, it grew to this size around the time the visible storm had faded away.

Here’s a video from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center featuring planetary scientist Brigette Hesman describing the event:

Like any planet with an active atmosphere, storms on Saturn are common, but one this big had never been seen before. I’d say it was fortunate that we had a spacecraft like Cassini orbiting the planet when the storm erupted, but luck had very little to do with it: it was hard work and dedication that gave us that view. Cassini is such a well-crafted machine that it has operated nearly flawlessly for over eight years orbiting the distant planet. Its design and launch took decades to complete, and it took another seven years just to get to Saturn in the first place.

My point? Luck favors those who are prepared and have planned for rare circumstance. A storm like this one may not happen very often, but we were ready for it by having Cassini there in the first place, and by having a fleet of Earth-based telescopes with their eyes on the sky to support it.

… and having said that, I’ll note an irony: although it was right there, Cassini didn’t discover the storm in the first place. Why not? Because there’s just too damn much to see in the Saturn system! The storm erupted rapidly, and Cassini was busy looking at the rings and moons, so it missed the storm’s genesis. This is not a failure on the part of Cassini or its designers and users: instead, it should be seen as a clarion call for more spacecraft, more explorers in our solar system observing all the myriad worlds.

When I see images and science like this, I am filled with awe and joy, but I’m also struck with an implacable thought: what else are we missing?

Image credit: Leigh N. Fletcher, University of Oxford, UK, and ESO; NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

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A storm wraps around Saturn
Psychedelic Saturn storm!
Saturn broods while a storm dissipates
Lightning strikes in a storm bigger than worlds

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures, Top Post
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Saturn, Storm, VLT

Comments (41)

  1. Jason A

    You encronosenate the first picture, but the second one you have to worbolonkener.

  2. vooba


  3. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    Mind you, it’s not like it was a firestorm: the maximum temperature was still a chilly -150° Celsius, but compared to Saturn’s usual -220 or so degrees, that’s pretty dang hot.

    Heh. So, to put it into terms I can relate to : it went from being well below the boiling point of nitrogen to being well above nitrogen’s boiling point.

    That’s cool!

  4. Wzrd1

    “…what else are we missing?”
    A lot. But, our space program is still young, our observations less than a blink in cosmic time scales. In time, we’ll see and learn much more.

    But, consider this: A storm on Earth with a 20 degree difference would be significant and highly destructive. Hurricanes run on less of a thermal gradient. Tornadoes can form with that much thermal energy moving air masses around easily.
    If a storm on Earth formed, at a similar relative size storm for the size of the planet, with that 20 degree difference, it would be considered a hypercane.

    Question, could that massive thermal difference be caused by similar processes to terrestrial mantle plumes?


  6. thetentman

    We are getting our own ‘Frankenstorm, here on the east coast this weekend. Won’t be as big but it’s gonna do some damage.

  7. Al Gore said that storms would be greatly enhanced because of global warming! This proves it.

  8. Mike

    I absolutely LOVE that you used “embiggened” in this article. :)

  9. mike

    I think Discover needs to “embiggen” its editorial staff.

  10. MIKE

    Ummm… so… am I REALLY going to be the one to point out “embiggens” has been used as a REAL word? I know it’s perfectly cromulent but still… really?

  11. Billy

    ” vooba Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 7:40 am


    While I appreciate the Jebediah Springfield reference as much as anyone, I agree that there is an actual word that could/should have been used in this article.

  12. Serious question: how much money would it cost to have one (or two, or three) satellite(s) permanently observing Saturn to study the planet (similar to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter)? And Jupiter as well, while we’re at it?

  13. Other Paul

    Is it really in the Northern hemisphere (i.e. that hemisphere on the same side as the ecliptic as our northern one is)? Reason I ask is, in the old days, when a’were a lad, all planetary images came from telescopes and were vertically inverted so – as you looked (if you were in the northern hemisphere) it was Saturn’s (or Mars’s or Jupe’s, whatever) southern hemisphere at the top of your view. And Mr Patrick Moore was always ready to remind us of this fact. But now, I suppose most of these published pics are done by remote cameras. Is there some international convention that all planetary pics – when published – are oriented north up – and does this irritate Australians and Chileans etc?

  14. A most cromulent article :)

  15. RJP

    One thing I enjoy about the internet is the myriad of things I can learn and discover – such as this article about Saturn, very cool!. So, it was enjoyable to discover a new word – “embiggened”. Is this really a word? The dictionaries I used don’t seem to have it listed. Can anyone shed light on this. Thank you.

  16. CountingMan

    Ok, so I was clearly not an astronomy nor astrophysics major in university, and therefore do not know much about the makeup of Saturn. However, a layman’s observation makes me think that this more akin to an eruption than a vortex storm, with the trailing of the changes to the atmosphere being led around the surface of Saturn in a linear formation – kind of like a smoke trail. Imagine a forest fire, with the atmospheric winds blowing a smoke trail linearly for miles across the landscape. Or, how the smoke trail from the 9/11 attacks on the WTC in NYC could be see from space.

    Again, I may be off base, but just a thought….

  17. rik warren

    “Embiggened ” is a neologism first introduced by Lisa Simpson several years ago. I am not sure about “encronosenate” but I guess it is a put-together word as well.

    I can’t find a definition but I assume it means; to aggregate (senate) over time (cronos).

    But as Ms Hoover, another esteemed Springfield teacher allows, both words are perfectly cromulent!

  18. Absolute zero is -273.15 C. Saturnian temp rise from 53 K to 123 K increased the thermodynamic temp by a factor of 2.3! A hypercane heating from 70 to 90 F, 294 K to 305 K, is a factor of 1.04. Near terrestrial room temp of 300K, reaction rates roughly double for every 10 K rise in temp, At deep cryogenic temps, the Arrhenius equation exponential growth is way larger than that,

    k_2/k_1 = e^[(-Ea/R)(1/T_2 – 1/T_1)]

    The Saturnian storm wasn’t only a heat engine. It was a continuously reacting planetary chemical bomb feeding on its own reaction exotherm. Saturn can be saved by the Carbon Tax on Everything.
    Boom badda boom

  19. Matt

    I find it troubling that a science magazine uses words like “encronosenate” (no definition found anywhere on the internet) and “ginormous.” Or should I just embiggen my vocabulary?

  20. Other Paul

    @Matt – you can only embiggen your vocabulary for you dare not shrink it. Because if you do, then you can’t recover from that condition. As everybody knows, there’s no rebigulator.

  21. Artor

    Phil must have gotten some traffic from an outside link, judging by all the people here thrown by “embiggen.” Welcome new readers!

    Any idea on what processes might be driving the storm? Was there an impact we didn’t see? Is there some chemical or nuclear process deep in Saturn’s core that could create such a plume? The video mentions that this seems to happen once per Saturnian year, but it still sounds like weird behavior. Is this just typical seasonal weather on Saturn?

  22. amphiox


    The purpose of science is the enlargement of knowledge.

    So why shouldn’t science blogs engage in the enlargement of vocabulary?

  23. Ray

    @19 Matt,

    Phil’s (The BA) blog isn’t affiliated with Discover magazine except in the sense they host his blog.

    So the only person you can blame for big words or mispellings is Phil.

  24. Rik Warren @ #17 said: “I am not sure about “encronosenate” but I guess it is a put-together word as well. I can’t find a definition but I assume it means; to aggregate (senate) over time (cronos). ”

    Not quite. Cronos is the Greek name for the Roman god Saturn. For reasons which some history grammar geek will hopefully explain, in English the adjectival form of a Latin name comes from the Greek equivalent. So “encronosenate” means “to make the size of Saturn”.

  25. The purpose of science is also to make scientific discovery accessible to non-scientists. Using pop-culture neologisms is one such effective tool.

  26. Chris

    I find it troubling that some people’s desire to be pedantic jerkoffs completely obfuscates their ability to recognize humor.

  27. Zathras

    Cronos is also the name of the Gou’ld system lord that killed Teal’c’s father, and Teal’c later took down 😉

  28. Could it be something like a volcano on the surface, with the storm being a side-effect of heat being dumped into the atmosphere?

  29. Keith Hearn

    Here’s a mass of gas with a volume comparable to that of the planet Earth, and it’s been heated up by 80 C (or K, whichever you prefer). That’s got to be a *lot* of energy. Where is all that energy coming from? Has the rest of Saturn cooled off to compensate? Or is it fueled by some sort of chemical process? I see that it’s been 8 years since the last perihelion, and will be 20 years until the next, so that doesn’t look like a factor. What could be driving this much heat production?

  30. Infinite123Lifer

    All that atomic excitement! WOW!

  31. Amazing. This blog consistently and cromulently embiggens my horizons 😀

    I do wonder, though, how such a storm can form on such a chilly gas giant? On earth, for instance, you have areas of vastly differing albedo that lead to complex temperature variations across the surface, and you have continents redirecting ocean currents, which themselves transport (and sometimes concentrate) heat. I always kinda figured that a gas giant, if it has any surface, must be fairly homogenous, and it’s not like there’s a whole lot of solar heating, is there? I know Jupiter gives off a fair deal of heat from gravitational contraction, but does Saturn? Could Saturn’s rings block enough sunlight to cause regional temperature variations that lead to storms?
    I love how every new thing we find out there leads to more questions. Infuriating and exciting at the same time :)

  32. I should have just seconded Keith’s comment and saved myself some time 😀

  33. Wzrd1

    For those asking about the heat source, it’s compression of the gas atmosphere of Saturn by gravity. The core is estimated to be at 10700 C. Saturn radiates 2.5 times more energy than is received from the sun. Like all things in astronomy, gravity makes things happen.
    Hence, my question earlier if it was thought to be similar to a mantle plume, where a section of the lower atmosphere becomes substantially hotter than normal and rises to cause the storm.

  34. Steve Morrison

    According to Wiktionary, someone actually used the word “embiggen” in 1884. It’s been cromulent for quite a while.

  35. Nigel Depledge

    Rik Warren (17) said:

    I can’t find a definition but I assume it means; to aggregate (senate) over time (cronos).

    Much simpler than that.

    Kronos (Cronos) was the Greek equivalent of the god Saturn. “Cronosenate” is to make Saturn-like. The BA practices neologisms all the time for photos posted in his blog, and it’s always more interesting than “click to go see the full-size version of this pic”.

  36. Nigel Depledge

    Marcus Ranum (28) said:

    Could it be something like a volcano on the surface, with the storm being a side-effect of heat being dumped into the atmosphere?

    Erm . . . what surface?

    AFAICT, our best understanding of the interior of gas giants is that, as pressure becomes higher and higher with increasing depth, so the gas gets denser and denser with until the concept of a liquid-gas phase boundary becomes meaningless. IIUC, both Saturn and Jupiter are believed to possess a “rocky” core that may or may not be overlain by a layer of metallic liquid hydrogen. A thick layer (several thousand km thick) of such a fluid would explain Jupiter’s immense magnetic field, for example.

  37. >Erm . . . what surface?

    I guess that was a dumb thought I had. When I hear that Saturn/Jupiter have a “core” all my mental imagery of earth-like planets kicks in. Per #33, I didn’t realize that the, um, middle stuff was so hot! But that makes sense. I am now vainly struggling to imagine a humongous lava lamp that’s really hot. Or something.

    “Metallic liquid hydrogen” sounds like “jumbo shrimp” to me. Isn’t it either metallic hydrogen, or liquid hydrogen? Is there a 2-state solution at extreme pressures? (and I’d say that metallic hydrogen is a pretty darned cool “core” if you’ve got one!) I always thought you only got metallic hydrogen when it was extremely cold but now I understand it; it’s all gravity and that makes it heat up.

  38. #19 Matt:
    So you don’t believe that a science writer should be allowed to have a sense of humour??? Perhaps you should try growing one yourself.
    You won’t find a definition of “encronosenate”, because Phil made it up! This is part of a long-running joke on his part, which began with him using “embiggen”, and has progressed to him inventing verbs which are appropriate to the subject matter, e.g. “enjovianate” for an image of Jupiter, “engalactinate” for an image of a galaxy, etc. In this case, as has already been explained, “Cronos” is the Greek name for Saturn.

  39. Nigel Depledge

    Marcus Ranum (37) said:

    “Metallic liquid hydrogen” sounds like “jumbo shrimp” to me. Isn’t it either metallic hydrogen, or liquid hydrogen?

    Well, this perspective might help : does iron stop being metallic when it melts?

    Based on its position in the periodic table, hydrogen should be a metal. It turns out that it requires immense pressure to force hydrogen to adopt a metallic state. I do not know if metallic hydrogen has ever been prepared on Earth to prove its existence and probe its properties. From a theoretical point of view, metallic liquid hydrogen is the best explanation of Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, so it seems plausible that it exists.

    Is there a 2-state solution at extreme pressures? (and I’d say that metallic hydrogen is a pretty darned cool “core” if you’ve got one!) I always thought you only got metallic hydrogen when it was extremely cold but now I understand it; it’s all gravity and that makes it heat up.

    Don’t forget the “pressure” axis on a phase diagram. Liquid CO2, to cite a different example, only exists at hight pressure (at a measly 1 bar, it sublimes straight from solid to gas). And if the pressure is reduced sufficiently, water does the same thing (more or less).

  40. 5uper5torm

    Could the storm on Titan’s south pole have caused this storm? Or is it the other way around?


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