A New Look at Saturn’s Northern Hexagon

by Jason Major on February 28, 2013

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Raw Cassini image captured on 26 Feb. 2013 (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Raw Cassini image captured on 26 Feb. 2013 (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Freshly delivered from Cassini’s wide-angle camera, this raw image gives us another look at Saturn’s north pole and the curious hexagon-shaped jet stream that encircles it, as well as the spiraling vortex of clouds at its center.

Back in November we got our first good look at Saturn’s north pole in years, now that Cassini’s orbit is once again taking it high over the ringplane. With spring progressing on Saturn’s northern hemisphere the upper latitudes are getting more and more sunlight — which stirs up storm activity in its atmosphere.

The bright tops of upper-level storm clouds speckle Saturn’s skies, and a large circular cyclone can be seen near the north pole, within the darker region contained by the hexagonal jet stream. This could be a long-lived storm, as it also seems to be in the images captured on November 27.

About 25,000 km (15,500 miles) across, Saturn’s hexagon is wide enough to fit nearly four Earths inside!

The Saturn hexagon as seen by Voyager 1 in 1980 (NASA)

The Saturn hexagon as seen by Voyager 1 in 1980 (NASA)

The hexagon was originally discovered in images taken by the Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s. It encircles Saturn at about 77 degrees north latitude and is estimated to whip around the planet at speeds of 354 km/h (220 mph.)

Watch a video of the hexagon in motion here.

The rings can be seen in the background fading into the shadow cast by the planet itself. A slight bit of ringshine brightens Saturn’s nighttime limb.

Cassini was approximately 579,653 kilometers (360,180 miles) from Saturn when the raw image above (W00079643) was taken.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

 

About 

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Ookmon February 28, 2013 at 5:49 AM

This is why we fund NASA!

Damian February 28, 2013 at 8:26 AM

reminds me of the Flower Of Life for some reason

Prism2Spectrum March 3, 2013 at 5:55 PM

“Geometrical figure composed of multiple evenly spaced, overlapping circles.” Or, in other words, “a flower-like pattern with the symmetrical structure of a hexagon” — consisting “of seven or more overlapping circles, in which the center of each circle is on the circumference of up to six surrounding circles of the same diameter”. — Wikipedia.

Rejecting the New Age connotations, I wonder if there is something to your analog: could the “one” huge polar geometry be comprised of a myriad-complex of smaller geometry? — like the “Flower of Life”? Perhaps, somehow related to the Fractual concept. One big thing built from a geometry of smaller things. The pattern of clouds in relief (3D would animation would be fantastic) might hold tantalizing clues.

Kevin Frushour February 28, 2013 at 10:40 AM

Are scientists still stumped at how this forms and stays in that shape? Wikipedia’s page wasn’t very helpful.

Andrés February 28, 2013 at 11:35 AM

I don’t think so, that’s a very known fact of fluid dynamics, I studied it for my physics degree, read about Rayleigh-Bénard convection (“convective Bénard cells tend to approximate regular right hexagonal prisms, particularly in the absence of turbulence” – Wikipedia).

space_sailor February 28, 2013 at 12:40 PM

I don`t think so – compare it to Earth`s atmosphere – we got descending currents on poles. Of course the source of hit is different but the rest of mechanizm should work in the same way

Andrés February 28, 2013 at 12:29 PM

There are lot’s of other differences, and you need more than just descending currents on poles to form cells.

Richard_Kirk February 28, 2013 at 1:26 PM

If this was a vortex lattice, then I would expect to see some sign of of the six satellite vortices on the other side of the vortex edges. I think you may have something like a Rossby wave, which in this case fits six periods around the pole, so it is nice and stable, but you could probably get a pentagon or a heptagon without upsetting things too much.

This is probably not something that we could predict. After all, if it could be predicted then why isn’t there one at the other pole? I think it is probably a temporary atmospheric feature, though ‘temporary’ here would include other ‘temporary’ atmospheric phenomena such as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

PS: I used to look at vortex lattices in superconductors ages ago. Very different fluids, but the maths has the same shapes.

Andrés February 28, 2013 at 12:23 PM

It could be that also. I’m just saying that hex’s are not that odd in fluid dynamics.

space_sailor February 28, 2013 at 11:35 AM

pole location suggests that it`s linked with influence of Saturn`s magnetic field

Jonathan May March 1, 2013 at 2:09 AM

We knew how they were formed back in the 50′s, because they also occur on earth.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rossby_wave

TAReece February 28, 2013 at 11:20 AM

You know I love the November pic… but what really gets me today is this simple sentence, “With spring progressing on Saturn’s northern hemisphere the upper
latitudes are getting more and more sunlight — which stirs up storm
activity in its atmosphere…”

891 MILLION miles from the sun,yet the big yellow light in the sky influences storms. Hmmmm.So the Sun is so powerful to affect climate on Saturn, yet can’t on a planet that is closer by a factor of 10?

Nice pic tho’

Jason Major February 28, 2013 at 3:11 PM

The Sun is the predominant source of energy across the Solar System. It even affects sublimation of surface ices on Pluto over the course of its orbit, much farther away than Saturn. With Saturn’s 30-year-long orbit, even small net increases in solar energy in higher latitudes during the spring and summer are of course going to have an effect on weather activity – especially in the upper atmosphere.

TAReece March 1, 2013 at 5:31 PM

Ofcourse it is. That is my point. It IS the predominant source of energy (heat) in the solar system. To underestimate its effects on climate and weather HERE is to do it a serious disservice.

Skipdallas February 28, 2013 at 1:50 PM

Computer simulations! WooHoo! WOW!! Explain the hexagonal structure! This is too cool!
Great Photographs! When we figure this out……. Maybe…..
I will be curious until I join the cosmos and know. My concept of Heaven.
RFH

katesisco February 28, 2013 at 3:51 PM

Amazing! If I was writing a sci fi story this hexagon would enclose a flat world.

danangel February 28, 2013 at 4:36 PM

Maybe it’s the Saturnian Pentagon. They had to one up us with a hexagon.

Anthony Flavell February 28, 2013 at 5:12 PM

There’s a couple of posts on LiveScience where researchers have created pentagonal and hexagonal standing waves – unfortunately they still don’t know the mechanism. I wonder if there’s some commonality here with this colossal hexagonal vortex at Saturn’s pole?
http://www.livescience.com/27342-star-shaped-gravity-waves.html
…and the video showing hexagonal symmetry:
http://www.livescience.com/27340-shape-shifting-gravity-wave-shown-by-shaking-oil-tanks-video.html

Jonathan May March 1, 2013 at 2:11 AM
Andrew Planet February 28, 2013 at 7:25 PM

What causes the Jet stream in the north pole and not in the south pole in the first place? Is that tantamount to claiming that Saturn’s external gaseous composition or possibly more solid core is not homogeneous in form and structure? If it were homogeneous throughout the whole planet why do we not see a jet stream created hexagon at the south pole ? Having witnessed a bias of surface anomalies happening in a few celestial bodies in our own solar system at only one of their poles has been giving me doubts for some time now.

Prism2Spectrum March 3, 2013 at 4:41 PM

Amazing, one can discern an almost braid-like pattern in the border Jet Stream(?) of the Hexagon. Image barely hints at it, but video view appears to dramatically reveal it. (Matter of contrasting resolutions, perhaps.) It appears roped-together cloud bands, like spiral-pattern of twisted threads, twined in length of strands. Indicative of secondary circular motion – coiling rotation?

What lies beneath the strange carousal panoply of whirling clouds, to form that colossal polar geometry? A surreal formation on round world belted with ocean-gas, streaming below shadows of revolving concentric Rings. Does the vast Ring-System, like giant differential assembly of huge working “machine”, comprised of integrated sets of operating parts (transmitting force and generating current through related [?] Solar-powered motions), play some mysterious role in bending the mighty Northern formation into the dynamic—none circular—Hexagon? Or, does the exotic geometry manifest a none-symmetrical Core in the Vortex display of “surface” atmosphere? Some crystal-like geometry shape? If not projected topography, perhaps, then, line-work of Electromagnetism, through complex-interplay of matter in motion, and energy of force.

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