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
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
If you’re a skeptic, you probably already know about the comedy musician Tim Minchin. He is simply brilliant, writing fantastic music about critical thinking. He was at TAM London and basically owned the place.
Skepchick Tracy King is overseeing the creation of an animated version of Tim’s absolutely fantastic song "Storm", about a skeptic at a dinner party who runs into a woman who believes anything as long as it isn’t real. The song is incredible, and the animation looks to be as well: they just released the official trailer.
It’s notoriously difficult to know if a video will go viral or not, but keep your eyes on this. When it’s finished, it’ll be big.