Super Storm on Saturn

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and a European Southern Observatory ground-based telescope are tracking the growth of a giant early-spring storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere so powerful that it stretches around the entire planet. The rare storm has been wreaking havoc for months and shooting plumes of gas high into the planet’s atmosphere.

Super Storm on Saturn (storm, 200px)

This false-color infrared image shows clouds of large ammonia ice particles dredged up by the powerful storm. Credit: Cassini. [more]

“Nothing on Earth comes close to this powerful storm,” says Leigh Fletcher, a Cassini team scientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and lead author of a study that appeared in this week’s edition of Science Magazine. “A storm like this is rare. This is only the sixth one to be recorded since 1876, and the last was way back in 1990.”

Cassini’s radio and plasma wave science instrument first detected the large disturbance in December 2010, and amateur astronomers have been watching it ever since through backyard telescopes.  As it rapidly expanded, the storm’s core developed into a giant, powerful thunderstorm, producing a 3,000-mile-wide (5,000-kilometer-wide) dark vortex possibly similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

This is the first major storm on Saturn observed by an orbiting spacecraft and studied at thermal infrared wavelengths.  Infrared observations are key because heat tells researchers a great deal about conditions inside the storm, including temperatures, winds, and atmospheric composition. Temperature data were provided by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal in Chile and Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS), operated by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“Our new observations show that the storm had a major effect on the atmosphere, transporting energy and material over great distances — creating meandering jet streams and forming giant vortices — and disrupting Saturn’s seasonal [weather patterns],” said Glenn Orton, a paper co-author, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The violence of the storm — the strongest disturbances ever detected in Saturn’s stratosphere — took researchers by surprise. What started as an ordinary disturbance deep in Saturn’s atmosphere punched through the planet’s serene cloud cover to roil the high layer known as the stratosphere.

Super Storm on Saturn (ir, 550px)

Thermal infrared images of Saturn from the Very Large Telescope Imager and Spectrometer for the mid-Infrared (VISIR) instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, on Cerro Paranal, Chile, appear at center and on the right. An amateur visible-light image from Trevor Barry, of Broken Hill, Australia, appears on the left. The images were obtained on Jan. 19, 2011. [more]

“On Earth, the lower stratosphere is where commercial airplanes generally fly to avoid storms which can cause turbulence,” says Brigette Hesman, a scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park who works on the CIRS team at Goddard and is the second author on the paper. “If you were flying in an airplane on Saturn, this storm would reach so high up, it would probably be impossible to avoid it.”

A separate analysis using Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, led by Kevin Baines of JPL, confirmed the storm is very violent, dredging up deep material in volumes several times larger than previous storms. Other Cassini scientists are studying the evolving storm and, they say, a more extensive picture will emerge soon.

Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

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May 21, 2011 12:15 am

Interesting, Who knew the Saturnianians had heated their home planet enough to cause catastrophic planetary storms?

May 21, 2011 12:36 am

So this leaves me wondering if the cooling trend is reaching Saturn? And will we soon be getting reports of more “snow” on the Marian ice caps?

May 21, 2011 12:53 am

Trevor Barry’s backyard picture is much clearer than those from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope’s. What gives?

May 21, 2011 12:58 am

Hydrogen atmosphere with Helium rain, Ammonia ice crystals, Climate Change but alas, no CO2.
Wonder how the other planets are doing lately?

Andrew H
May 21, 2011 1:28 am

Do we have the technology to determine accurately temperatures on other planets and moons in our solar system? If we do and there are some serious unbiased measurements taken, then man made global warming could be either confirmed or denied. If the other planets/moons are warming and cooling at a similar rate to Earth’s then the sun could be the only culprit.

John Marshall
May 21, 2011 1:33 am

So a hurricane like storm on Saturn, and not a greenhouse gas in sight!!!
If the GHG theory is correct, there should be no solar heating within an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium so where has the heat come from that has caused this disturbance? If the heat profile of all planets is compared they are roughly the same, CO2 rich or CO2 deplete (or any other GHG considered). So something else affecting all gasses is the process. Adiabatic compression perhaps?

May 21, 2011 2:00 am

Its the Rapture!!!
Bugger! Wrong planet….

Filbert Cobb
May 21, 2011 3:41 am

“The rare storm has been wreaking havoc”…
To whom?

May 21, 2011 5:21 am

amoorhouse says:
May 21, 2011 at 2:00 am
Its the Rapture!!!
Bugger! Wrong planet….

Nah. It is the Lord just practicing. A little practice never hurt anyone.

Pamela Gray
May 21, 2011 6:16 am

We often wonder at the other planets we see in our telescopes, veiled in their swirling atmosphere. Yet on Earth we can’t imagine our own atmosphere being so interesting and instead study the Sun (or the silly notion that CO2 is wut dun it) for the least tiny bit of variation to explain it all.
So, big storms on Saturn cause lower atmospheric “stuff” to shoot out to space. Sounds like a planet with a leaky atmosphere. Good thing we have the Sun to keep things perking along among these highly variable mercurial planets circling its warm bosom.
Maybe that’s why females need a diamond on their finger. Something warm, steady and shiny to sooth the raging beast, ever ready to roil the atmosphere.

May 21, 2011 6:21 am

wayne says:
May 21, 2011 at 12:53 am
Trevor Barry’s backyard picture is much clearer than those from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope’s. What gives?
I agree — that’s an incredibly detailed view for an amateur setup. Someone ought to hire the guy.
I read somewhere that the clouds are mostly water vapor & quite similar in structure (except size) to earth T-storms (including lightning), the heat being provided by lower-down, internal heat rather than solar surface heating. Anyone know?

jack morrow
May 21, 2011 7:09 am

Someday I’m going to put on some type of frock, grow a goatee and proclaim myself a scientist and make a wild guess about science and the universe. That’s about what is going on here. They still aren’t even sure about the storms on Saturn’s poles where one is even a hexagon shaped one yet they tell you about how to fly an aircraft on the methane gases of Saturn to try to avoid turbulence. Bridgette the scientist doesn’t know squat. Seems none of them can just say–I don’t know. Same as the “preacher” should have said about rapture.

May 21, 2011 7:33 am

Way too much common sense in that article.
“…they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”
Perhaps once the inmates (the “team”, stop running the asylum (the AGW false orthodoxy) this recovery will speed up.

May 21, 2011 8:26 am

“A storm like this is rare. This is only the sixth one to be recorded since 1876, and the last was way back in 1990.”
The storm is obvious in the infrared false-color image, but in the visible-light image, it looks mostly like a band of white. Did observers back in 1876 have instruments that could detect and record something like this?

May 21, 2011 9:26 am

Just goes to prove the AGW assertion that you need extra warming on a planet to cause more hurricanes. Remind me, what is the average atmospheric temperature of Saturn??

May 21, 2011 9:26 am

wayne says:
May 21, 2011 at 12:53 am
It’s a planetary imaging technique. The exposure needed is very short, so thousands of images are snapped off in rapid succession. Then the very best images are selected to take advantage of the momentary lulls in Earth’s roiled atmosphere, stacked and processed.

May 21, 2011 9:51 am

Is that anything to do with charged plasma?

Mac the Knife
May 21, 2011 12:54 pm

Forget all of the analogies to earthly environment. This is BIG, brash, bold and wild Saturn, as different from Earth as a hammer head shark is to a fresh water blue gill! This is solar system science at its most interesting and profoundly unpredictable best! A close up Cassini observing satellite combining with earth based capabilities ranging from back yard astronomers to the Very Large Telescope Imager and Spectrometer for the mid-Infrared (VISIR) instrument….. and everything in between!
Thank you God! The wonders of your firmament and the need to understand and to explore it, are what propelled me into college and an extended career in astrospace and aerospace. It’s a great time to be alive and contribute in our own small ways, as mankind takes it’s first toddling steps into the solar system and away from the earthly crib! As Winston Churchill once observed “So much achieved, and yet, so much to do!”

May 21, 2011 3:52 pm

wayne says:
May 21, 2011 at 12:53 am
Trevor Barry’s backyard picture is much clearer than those from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope’s. What gives?

Barry’s backyard image is taken in visible light, using video techniques. The ESO image is in infrared, i.e. longer wavelength and therefore lower resolution.
Here is my own Saturn backyard image from a few years ago. The camera is a standard off the shelf Philips webcam fitted to an 8″ amateur telescope. The image is a stack of 978 singe frames selected from almost 4000 in a video sequence.
Amateur planetary imaging/procesing has improved a lot the last ~10 years.

Jean Parisot
May 21, 2011 4:31 pm

Katherine, exactly. Every time I see a paper with a historical correlation I get upset – sunspots, climate, extinction, etc.
I want to demand some sort of search theory/poi based analysis for the differences in sampling.

May 21, 2011 5:49 pm

According to the Wiki page on Saturn’s storms,
“The phenomenon is somewhat periodic at 28.5-year intervals, when Saturn’s northern hemisphere tilts most toward the Sun. The following is a list of recorded sightings; years with spots generally considered to be part of the cycle are 1876, 1903, 1933, 1960, and 1990.”
I checked those dates against a sunspot chart, but there’s no correlation. The first four dates are in minima, the last two near maxima.

May 21, 2011 6:21 pm

Anthony, what do you mean by “early spring”? – On Saturn? It is late Autumn here, “downunder”!

May 21, 2011 6:31 pm

Carsten Arnholm, Norway, that’s a nice picture. Your right, amateurs have take a huge leap. I have some rudimentary stacking software written a number of years back and that does wonders, especially if some enhancing is performed on each frame before combining. Individual artifacts on a given frame just fade into nothing
I just didn’t realize that IR would decrease the resolution that much even on such a large state-of-the-art scope. Or maybe the viewing conditions just weren’t optimal when taken.

Brian H
May 22, 2011 12:10 am

Say what? Who referred to sunspots? The tilt of the planet toward the sun is the cycle in question. The “spots” referred to are the storms on Saturn.

John Barrett
May 22, 2011 9:27 am

Top Trivia :
The 1933 storm ( Great White Spot ) was discovered by the British comedian Will Hay, who was a renowned amateur astronomer.
Dunno if he was assisted by his sidekicks Albert and Harbottle at the time.

May 22, 2011 7:09 pm

as far as instruments in 1886 for recording these storms, there was the mark I mod O eyeball, connected to the mark I mod O fingers holding mark 14 mod 27 pencils.
razzing aside, biologists have for centuries drawn stuff on paper that they saw in microscopes. as a matter of fact the real pro’s in that world have said for years that the drawings that they produce show details that closed circuit television and photography miss.

Hannes Alfven
May 22, 2011 8:09 pm

Re: Is that anything to do with charged plasma?
Only in plasma physics class, @orkneylad. This is climate class!

Bob Shapiro
May 22, 2011 8:37 pm

Any chance that the Solar Minimum we’re in, with its low Solar Wind allowing more GCRs to hit Saturn, is at least partly increasing the clouds / storm? The Solar Wind has to be much less out there compared to Earth, so the high GCRs probably started hitting Saturn in force earlier than on earth.

May 23, 2011 4:25 am

amoorhouse says:
May 21, 2011 at 2:00 am
Its the Rapture!!!
Bugger! Wrong planet….

Thread winner!
/Mr L

May 23, 2011 7:31 am

“A storm like this is rare. This is only the sixth one to be recorded since 1876, and the last was way back in 1990.”
Six storms over 135 years gives an expected period of 27 years. She should have said “the last was only back in 1990.”
Maybe AGW is causing Saturnic storms to increase in frequency.

May 25, 2011 5:10 am

Now that Saturns orbit is past spring equinox and heading into the apex direction of the heliospheres orbit..I am wondering with the lowered solar dipole strength if Saturn being that far away from a more direct solar influence if..pollution in interPLANETARY space is producing this storm.. Also, wondering how the solar wind/IMF snow plow effect is out there at this time..The planets further out from 1AU will show the interPLANETARY pollution effect much soooooooner than at 1AU where more interactions from solar wind/IMF occur. Are we monitoring LOD on Saturn? The Saturn magnetic dipole positon most curious.
Saturn experiencing turbulent spring storms..
Earth experiencing turbulent spring storms..
Good day..

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