The Beauty of a Mysterious Saturn Storm
Nov. 21, 2011 --
Late last year, something was rumbling deep inside Saturn's atmosphere. NASA's Cassini Solstice mission, currently in orbit around the beautiful ringed gas giant, detected the crackling of lightning activity. Then, a small whirling blemish started to grow and in a matter of weeks a vast storm was born. As the storm progressed into 2011, it grew to 9,000 miles across, with its rippling tail wrapping around an entire hemisphere. In these photographs released by Cassini's imaging team last week, the dramatic detail of the historic storm has been processed, showing the intricate detail of the beautiful violence of Saturn's dynamic atmosphere.
The Genesis of a Monster
On Dec. 5, 2010, the Cassini spacecraft detected electrical activity in Saturn's atmosphere. This signified lightning activity -- a thunderstorm was brewing. At the same time a tiny blemish formed -- the seed of a monstrous storm that would persist for a record-breaking 200 days.
The Head of the Storm
By the end of 2010, the storm had become a very obvious feature in the Saturnian northern hemisphere.
A Global Phenomenon
The storm rapidly became a global phenomenon, wrapping itself around the entire planet, covering a vast region of 2 billion square miles. Before this 200-day storm, small clusters of lightning storms had heralded tiny disturbances lasting only a few days inside Saturn's "Storm Alley." However, this major disturbance was one storm that grew to mammoth proportions. It remains a mystery as to why it grew so big.
A "Different Kind of Beast"
"This new storm is a completely different kind of beast compared to anything we saw on Saturn previously with Cassini," said Kunio Sayanagi, a Cassini imaging team associate and planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The fact that such outbursts are episodic and keep happening on Saturn every 20 to 30 years or so is telling us something about deep inside the planet, but we have yet to figure out what it is." Cassini remains in orbit, enjoying an extended mission of discovery. If there's one spacecraft that will help to unravel Saturn's mysterious atmosphere, Cassini is it.
SEE MORE ARTICLES BY IAN O'NEILL