Saturn certainly is one of the most visually stunning planets in our Solar System. However, on closer look, the ringed beauty is also beginning to look like one of our weirdest.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft scientists recently released photos of a massive hurricane-like structure at Saturn’s North Pole. Cassini just got a glimpse of the feature in 2004 when Saturn’s North Pole was tipped away from the Sun. It wasn’t until spring of 2009 that scientists were able to re-program the spacecraft so it would fly directly over the feature to reveal this strange and mesmerizing super storm.
The Red Rose of Saturn, a name coined from NASA’s colorized photos of the structure, is very similar to hurricanes on Earth with a few striking differences – size, wind speed and a fueling mechanism.
More Powerful Than Earth Based Hurricanes
The eye of Saturn’s hurricane is about 20 times bigger than an average hurricane eye here on Earth — about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide. To put in terrestrial terms, that’s about half the width of Australia or about the distance from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to central Kansas. That’s one huge eye and the rest of the storm extends out beyond it for another 600 to 700 miles. Even the clouds at the center of the eye are huge. NASA says they are about the size of Texas.
Winds whip around the eye of the super storm at about 330 mph (530 km/h). To put that in perspective, that’s four times hurricane force winds or twice the speed of a Category 5 hurricane here on Earth. Category 5 hurricanes must have sustained winds of over 155 mph. But like an earthly hurricane, the winds spin clockwise.
Another important difference between Earth based hurricanes and Saturn’s maelstrom is that it’s stationary. It appears to be locked in or around Saturn’s North Pole whereas Earth based hurricanes drift due to the Earth’s rotation and atmospheric disturbances.
What Feeds This Monster?
Hurricane’s here on Earth are fueled by warm ocean water but there are no oceans on Saturn, which is basically a huge hydrogen gas ball. There are small amounts of water vapor in Saturn’s atmosphere but scientists are at a loss as to what is feeding the storm and look forward to studying this part of the puzzle.
A Hurricane Wrapped In A Six-sided Vortex?
If it weren’t astounding enough to discover a hurricane like storm of this magnitude on the ringed planet, Cassini sent back photos of a hexagon shaped structure surrounding the hurricane. Scientists believe the walls of this hexagon are similar to high-speed atmospheric jet streams here on Earth. However, no one has ventured an explanation for its mysterious six-sided shape.
What’s Going On At the South Pole?
Another gigantic storm spins around the South Pole. Although the hurricane-like storm at Saturn’s South Pole is not as famous as its northerly counterpart, it’s almost two-thirds the size of Earth. The eye is much more defined, looking like a giant freakish eye. The clouds rise to a height of 18 to 46 miles (30 to 75 kilometers) above the eye.
On July 30, 1610, Galileo wrote to his patron about his discovery of Saturn, “I discovered another very strange wonder . . .” What would Galileo think of his discovery now.