Giant storm on Saturn has massive lightning activity caught on tape

The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

PASADENA, Calif. – Scientists analyzing data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft now have the first-ever, up-close details of a Saturn storm that is eight times the surface area of Earth.

On Dec. 5, 2010, Cassini first detected the storm that has been raging ever since. It appears at approximately 35 degrees north latitude on Saturn. Pictures from Cassini’s imaging cameras show the storm wrapping around the entire planet covering approximately 1.5 billion square miles (4 billion square kilometers).

The storm is about 500 times larger than the biggest storm previously seen by Cassini during several months from 2009 to 2010.

Scientists studied the sounds of the new storm’s lightning strikes and analyzed images taken between December 2010 and February 2011. Data from Cassini’s radio and plasma wave science instrument showed the lightning flash rate as much as 10 times more frequent than during other storms monitored since Cassini’s arrival to Saturn in 2004. The data appear in a paper published this week in the journal Nature.

“Cassini shows us that Saturn is bipolar,” said Andrew Ingersoll, an author of the study and a Cassini imaging team member at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. “Saturn is not like Earth and Jupiter, where storms are fairly frequent. Weather on Saturn appears to hum along placidly for years and then erupt violently. I’m excited we saw weather so spectacular on our watch.”

At its most intense, the storm generated more than 10 lightning flashes per second. Even with millisecond resolution, the spacecraft’s radio and plasma wave instrument had difficulty separating individual signals during the most intense period. Scientists created a sound file from data obtained on March 15 at a slightly lower intensity period.

Cassini has detected 10 lightning storms on Saturn since the spacecraft entered the planet’s orbit and its southern hemisphere was experiencing summer, with full solar illumination not shadowed by the rings. Those storms rolled through an area in the southern hemisphere dubbed “Storm Alley.” But the sun’s illumination on the hemispheres flipped around August 2009, when the northern hemisphere began experiencing spring.

“This storm is thrilling because it shows how shifting seasons and solar illumination can dramatically stir up the weather on Saturn,” said Georg Fischer, the paper’s lead author and a radio and plasma wave science team member at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Graz. “We have been observing storms on Saturn for almost seven years, so tracking a storm so different from the others has put us at the edge of our seats.”

The storm’s results are the first activities of a new “Saturn Storm Watch” campaign. During this effort, Cassini looks at likely storm locations on Saturn in between its scheduled observations. On the same day that the radio and plasma wave instrument detected the first lightning, Cassini’s cameras happened to be pointed at the right location as part of the campaign and captured an image of a small, bright cloud. Because analysis on that image was not completed immediately, Fischer sent out a notice to the worldwide amateur astronomy community to collect more images. A flood of amateur images helped scientists track the storm as it grew rapidly, wrapping around the planet by late January 2011.

The new details about this storm complement atmospheric disturbances described recently by scientists using Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. The storm is the biggest observed by spacecraft orbiting or flying by Saturn. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured images in 1990 of an equally large storm.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The radio and plasma wave science team is based at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, where the instrument was built. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

For images and an audio file of the storm, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov .

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› Audio clip (wav 93Kb)   (mp3 120Kb)

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured these sounds of lightning strikes at Saturn on March 15, 2011, during the largest and most intense storm observed up-close at Saturn. Lightning at Saturn creates phenomena known as Saturn electrostatic discharges, which are like the static that Earth lightning creates on an AM radio. The amplitude and duration of the Saturn lightning radio signals were used to create the audio signals heard here.

Cassini’s radio and plasma wave instrument first detected this storm on Dec. 5, 2010, through these Saturn electrostatic discharges. The storm is still raging. At its most active, lightning flashes occurred at a rate of more than 10 per second. This was so frequent, in fact, that Cassini could no longer resolve individual strokes. On March 15, when these data were collected, the strike intensity was slightly lower and easier to resolve.

This 11-second clip covers data obtained over a period of 57 seconds.

This lightning storm is also remarkable in that it is the first Cassini has observed in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, suggesting that these storms break out when spring and summer come to a particular hemisphere. Spring began in the northern hemisphere in August 2009, when the sun moved from shining over the southern hemisphere to the northern one.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radio and plasma wave science team is based at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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35 thoughts on “Giant storm on Saturn has massive lightning activity caught on tape

  1. Must’ve gone deaf, can’t hear anything…

    But I was wondering why don’t they take a satellite much closer to Saturn’s surface, like the satellites around our planet? That way we could get close up images.

  2. This is the kind of thing that I wish NASA would concentrate on – real science.

  3. Clearly that storm is caused by global warming.
    /sarc

    Thanks for posting this, it’s pretty awesome.

  4. “This is the kind of thing that I wish NASA would concentrate on – real science.”

    Quite.

  5. “This storm is thrilling because it shows how shifting seasons and solar illumination can dramatically stir up the weather on Saturn,” said Georg Fischer, the paper’s lead author and a radio and plasma wave science team member at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Graz. “We have been observing storms on Saturn for almost seven years, so tracking a storm so different from the others has put us at the edge of our seats.”

    But I thought the Sun only had a minor effect on climate…..? /s

  6. They will not bother to blame the storm on AGW…..No Taxpayers live on Saturn…..In fact nobody lives on Saturn so no Tax benefit there.

  7. Serious question:

    If the sun can have this great of an effect on the weather of Saturn, why can’t it effect the weather/climate here on Earth? We are considerably closer to the Sun…

  8. If anyone finds the URL for the page containing the lightning videos could they please post them. Direct links would even be better. Thanks.

    Certainly someone there at NASA could put the audio and video together in a synced movie. That would make better sense.

    BTW, it is odd that the MP3 file is larger than the WAV file.

  9. It sort of resembles what you would get from a massive volcano on the Planet, making it’s own lightning.

  10. “The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn’s northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI”
    =======
    Not only did it “overtake itself”, it moved north, the same distance as its size.
    Or did its remnants move south ?

  11. If it were a blackened remnant, or had left a blackened circular mark, I would assume it were another asteroid/comet impact on Saturn that hit on the back side, then rotated into our view.

    But the “white” clouds moving north like that? Odd.

  12. Rhoda Ramirez says (July 8, 2011 at 4:09 pm): “This is the kind of thing that I wish NASA would concentrate on – real science.”

    Amen. This is the “sense of wonder” stuff that got me interested in the space program. I’d pay real money to see more like it.

    Oh wait, I did…

  13. Something smacked the living crap out of Jupiter again…
    Too bad we don’t have footage of the genesis of the ‘storm’.
    When I see this I’m thinking a “Tunguska Event” on a massive scale occurred…

  14. Earlier in the year this storm a billion miles away was visible in my 12-inch telescope, and even in the 3-inch scope I got for Christmas in 1959. In my 50+ years as a meteorological observer, this is the most distant weather phenomenon I’ve ever seen. Worth waiting for.

  15. “the_Butcher says:
    July 8, 2011 at 3:55 pm
    But I was wondering why don’t they take a satellite much closer to Saturn’s surface, like the satellites around our planet? That way we could get close up images.”

    Cassini is also observing Saturn’s moons, so it needs to be in an orbit to make passes near as many of them as possible.
    Also, the orbital pattern has to avoid too many passes in the vicinity of Saturn’s rings, to reduce the risk of particle damage.

  16. The white clouds have been attributed, during previous storms, to “ammonia ice crystals that form when an upward flow of warmer gases shoves its way through Saturn’s frigid cloud tops.”
    http://www.solarviews.com/cap/sat/satstorm.htm

    Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, also exhibits seasonal weather, clouds, precipitation and storms.

    – – – –
    A huge arrow-shaped storm blows across the equatorial region of Titan in this image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, chronicling the seasonal weather changes on Saturn’s largest moon.
    […] Titan’s weather has been changing since the August 2009 equinox, when the sun lay directly over the equators of Saturn and its moons, and storms at low latitudes are now more common.
    http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/photos/imagedetails/index.cfm?imageId=4256

    In the dense smog of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, one far dirtier than anything on Earth, scientists have uncovered a surprise — pearly white cirrus-like clouds much like the ones that can be seen in our skies.
    http://www.space.com/10923-saturn-moon-titan-clouds.html

    Explanation: This color view from Titan gazes across a suddenly familiar but distant landscape on Saturn’s largest moon. The scene was recorded by ESA’s Huygens probe after a 2 1/2 hour descent through a thick atmosphere of nitrogen laced with methane. Bathed in an eerie orange light at ground level, rocks strewn about the scene could well be composed of water and hydrocarbons frozen solid at an inhospitable temperature of – 179 degrees C. […]
    Titan’s bizarre chemical environment may bear similarities to planet Earth’s before life evolved.
    http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap050117.html

    ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory found out in 1998 the presence of water vapour in Titan’s atmosphere. Basically Titan exhibits many similarities to conditions that may well once have prevailed on Earth.
    http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Cassini-Huygens/SEM3782VQUD_0.html

    Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is a mysterious place. Its thick atmosphere is rich in organic compounds. Some of them would be signs of life …. if they were on our planet.
    http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Cassini-Huygens/SEM696HHZTD_0.html
    – – – –

  17. I read in a newspaper article that really big storms like this one on Saturn have only been seen around half a dozen times since the 1870’s. Does anyone have any dates for these?

  18. Well, since Saturn’s Spring seasons come about 30 Earth years apart, 2010 – 1870 = 140, and 140/30 = 4.7, so there could have been a max of 5 NH seasonal turnovers.

    The exact-er orbital period is 29.7 yrs., if you want to count backwards for the dates.

  19. Wow, I did not know that sound could travel through the vacuum of space. So that movie was wrong “In space, nobody can hear you scream”.
    /snarc
    Anyway, calling a electro/magnetic wave, sound, doesn’t sound very scientific to me.

  20. tallbloke says:
    July 9, 2011 at 4:20 am
    I read in a newspaper article that really big storms like this one on Saturn have only been seen around half a dozen times since the 1870′s. Does anyone have any dates for these?

    Brian H says:
    July 9, 2011 at 4:37 am
    Well, since Saturn’s Spring seasons come about 30 Earth years apart, 2010 – 1870 = 140, and 140/30 = 4.7, so there could have been a max of 5 NH seasonal turnovers.

    The exact-er orbital period is 29.7 yrs., if you want to count backwards for the dates.

    ~
    Questions questions we have questions..

    Did they occur during solar max or min. Was it during a Saturn Spring (frontal nose of heliosphere entering) or Fall (exiting of frontal). All that Interstellar stuff is different at that distance..

  21. Carla:
    Yes, I’m wondering if variation in the onset of the storms relative to the Saturnian seasons might tell us anything about the strength of effect of solar system electro-magnetic fields, either those generated by the Sun, or by Jupiter, or by the modulation of one by the other.

    Where can I find the data I wonder. Googling hasn’t turned up anything so far.

  22. tallbloke says:
    July 10, 2011 at 5:04 am
    ~
    Haven’t taken the time myself. Jupiters spots are fascinating in themselves for me. Jupiter when downwind on the tailside in its winter does pass through the helium focusing cone. Where as Saturn does not.
    Gee whiz Tallbloke they got an asteroid belt to mod why how can they .. never mind.
    Their dipole orientations are a fascination that might hold some of the clues you seek..

  23. Carla says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    July 10, 2011 at 2:19 pm
    tallbloke says:
    July 10, 2011 at 5:04 am
    ~
    Also wondering aloud if now during this prolonged solar min. what kind of affect it would have on the helium focusing cone and if it might now extend out to SATURNS orbit so that it too gets and extra shot..like the inner planets do.

  24. Neon and the H2O group in the cone, oh my.
    JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH, VOL. 115, A10108, 9 PP., 2010
    doi:10.1029/2010JA015585

    Observations of interstellar neon in the helium focusing cone
    ..Because of the motion of the Sun through the interstellar medium, interstellar neutral gas flows through the inner heliosphere and for some of the species is focused on the downwind side by the gravitation of the Sun. This gravitational focusing cone, which is absent for inner source ions, has been identified for He with UV backscattering and pickup ion observations and is used to diagnose the interstellar parameters. Using the large geometric factor of the Plasma and Suprathermal Ion Composition instrument on the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory mission, we have studied heavy pickup ions in the mass-per-charge range 12–20 during 2007 and 2008. We have clearly identified C+, N+, O+, the H2O+ group, and Ne+ among the heavy pickup ions. Out of these, Ne+ shows clear enhancements during two consecutive focusing cone passages, as evidenced by concurrent He+ enhancements during these periods, whereas all the other species are evenly distributed. This is the first observation of the interstellar focusing cone for Ne, whose survival probability as neutrals is only slightly lower than that of He and substantially higher than for other elements. .
    http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2010/2010JA015585.shtml

    Does Earth orbit in this stuff..yeah oh yeah
    Maybe Cassini needs to redefine the cone for us. Cassini If my recall is correct helped to define its (gravitational focusing cone) extent before.
    Still thinking that neon has something to do with the increased noctilucent clouds as of late which continue southward in latitude.

  25. Gary Mount says:
    July 9, 2011 at 5:45 am

    Wow, I did not know that sound could travel through the vacuum of space. So that movie was wrong “In space, nobody can hear you scream”.
    /snarc
    Anyway, calling a electro/magnetic wave, sound, doesn’t sound very scientific to me.

    Many years ago, there was an invention called a “radio receiver”. YCLIU

  26. Tenuc says:
    July 9, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Wonder if the lightening on Saturn is caused by the same mechanism as lightening on Earth?

    Yes, sunrise.
    But electrical discharges in storms (lightning) are caused by ??? The updraft/charge lofting hypotheses are showing problems; they’re far too feeble.
    But whatever the mechanism(s), they’re probably similar on both planets. And Venus.

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