Friday, July 08, 2011

Saturn: Bring an Umbrella

The disturbances on Saturn shown here depict the largest, most intense storm observed on Saturn by NASA’s Voyager or Cassini spacecraft. The storm, currently active, encircles the giant planet, encompassing an area eight times the surface area of earth. Inside the planet’s atmosphere, lightning is generated in the water clouds where rain and hail make electricity, creating significant radio noise. Scientists are mystified as to why Saturn stores energy for decades and releases it all at once. This behavior is unlike that at Jupiter and Earth, which have numerous storms going on at all times. Carolyn Porco, the Cassini Imaging Team Leader, writes in her Captain’s Log on July 6th, 2011:

“One might think that after years in orbit around Saturn, we are now accustomed to great big happenings and fantastic spectacles. But far from it. It is the shock of the unexpected, the intense mind-grabbing, eye-popping, soul-stirring thrill of seeing the unseen that gets us every time. That is what this glorious, history-making exploration of Saturn and its magnificent realm is all about.”

This picture, captured on Feb. 25, 2011, was taken about three months after the storm began. By this time the clouds had already formed a tail that wrapped around the planet. This tail, which show as blue-tinged clouds south and west (left) of the storm head, can be seen encountering the storm head in this view. To see ravishing close-up images of the storm, click here.

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