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Monster hurricane rages on Saturn's north pole: Video

April 29, 2013|By Deborah Netburn

Images of a massive hurricane raging inside a strange hexagonal weather pattern at Saturn's north pole have recently been released by NASA, revealing a mystery inside an even bigger mystery.

The hurricane is enormous and violent--more than 20 times the size of the average hurricane on Earth, with winds gusting at speeds four times what they would be on our planet.

The hurricane appears to be fixed at Saturn's north pole, rather than drifting around the planet like hurricanes do here. Also, scientists are still trying to figure out how the hurricane developed with no body of water below it. There are no oceans on Saturn; it is a gaseous planet.

But scientists were surprised to discover that Saturn's north pole hurricane does share some characteristics with Earth's hurricanes. For example, it has an eye, and it spins in the same direction -- counterclockwise -- that a hurricane would spin in Earth's Northern Hemisphers.

"We are trying to understand the similarities and differences, and I can't say we have it all solved yet," said Andrew Ingersoll, a Cassini imaging team member at Caltech in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. He added that scientists are still trying to determine whether the hurricane makes lightning.

As for the hexagonal weather pattern -- that is a mystery to scientists, but not a surprise.

Known simply as "the hexagon," it was discovered more than 30 years ago when Voyager flew past the ringed planet, and scientists were amazed that it was still there when the Cassini spacecraft arrived nine years ago.

"It is just a big pattern in the clouds. It is not cast in concrete. It's not part of the continents, because there are no continents," Ingersoll said. "But it's still there -- some kind of wandering jet stream."

While scientists knew that the hexagon existed, they did not know what was inside it until recently. That's because for much of the time that Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn, the planet has been in its winter, and its north pole was turned away from the sun, leaving it in total darkness.

Using Cassini's infrared imaging capabilities, scientists could see that there was a break in the clouds right over the planet's north pole, and they surmised it might be a hurricane, but it wasn't until the planet entered its spring, and sunlight flooded the north pole, that Cassini's visible-light cameras were able to take more detailed photos, revealing the hurricane in all its raging glory.

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