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The Sights And Sounds of Saturn’s Super Storm

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

It’s five hundred times bigger than any anything like it observed by the Cassini Mission in the last two years. It’s encompassing approximately 2 billion square miles (4 billion square kilometers) of Saturn’s surface. It’s releasing lightning bolts at a rate of ten per second and it’s happening ten times more frequently than other storms monitored since 2004. It’s so intense that’s it’s even visible in larger amateur telescopes. Just what is it? A Saturn Super Storm…

“Last December, a remarkable thing happened at Saturn. A massive, hissing, lightning-producing storm violently erupted in the northern mid-latitudes of Saturn’s atmosphere and grew to gargantuan proportions.” says Carolyn Porco. “By the end of January, it had wrapped itself entirely around the planet, developing an enormous degree of wavy, even sensuous, details, reminiscent of the clouds on Jupiter.”

Known as “Great White Spots”, these huge storms aren’t new to Saturn – they are common each Saturnian year. While they are common to the ringed planet’s northern summer, right now it’s northern spring. This makes the Saturn Super Storm an early – and unexpected – arrival.

“Prior to the planet’s August 2009 northern vernal equinox, when the sun was shining in the southern hemisphere, the location of all observed storm activity on Saturn was a band encircling the planet at 35 degrees south latitude that imaging scientists had dubbed `Storm Alley’. Well, to our great puzzlement, this new storm — now 500 times larger than any previously seen by Cassini at Saturn and 8 times the surface area of Earth — has erupted at 35 degrees /north/ latitude.” says Ms. Porco. “The shadow cast by Saturn’s rings has a strong seasonal effect, and it is possible that the switch to powerful storms now being located in the northern hemisphere is related to the change of seasons and the changing position of Saturn’s ring shadow. But why the obvious hemispheric symmetry in storm eruption exists is not yet known.”

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was listening to the sounds of the storm, too. Much like our terrestrial lightning causes a static effect on an AM radio, Saturn creates a phenomena known as Saturn electrostatic discharges. Check out this audio file of the action!

“The storm is also a prodigious source of radio noise, which comes from lightning deep in the planet’s atmosphere. As on Earth, the lightning is produced in the water clouds, where falling rain and hail generate electricity. The mystery is 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 occurring at any one time.” explains Dr. Porco.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft captures a composite near-true-color view of the huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Violent, yes… But incredibly beautiful. This false color image reveals clouds at different altitudes as seen by the Cassini spacecraft from a distance of approximately 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers). Blue represents high and semi-transparent. Yellow and white are optically thick at high altitudes. Green is intermediate, while red and brown are low altitude unobscured by high clouds. Last, but not least is dark blue – a thin haze with nothing but Saturn below it. Scientists theorize the lightning is formed at the base cloud layer where water ice is covered by crystallized ammonia.

“This storm is thrilling because it shows how shifting seasons and solar illumination can dramatically stir up the weather on Saturn,” said Georg Fischer, 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.”

Original Story Source: JPL / NASA News.

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dotknott July 7, 2011, 1:06 AM

    There seems to be an issue with some of the facebook buttons, Tammy. I’m having trouble “liking” this.

    That said… this is Awesome.

  • HeadAroundU July 7, 2011, 2:31 AM

    The first picture is very nice. The second one is like an expressionist painting.

  • Anonymous July 7, 2011, 8:00 AM

    The lower picture caption says near true colour and the text says false colour. Which is it please?

    • Anonymous July 7, 2011, 8:01 AM

      Ah i see it’s a NASA story so you won’t be able to say unless you can ask them.

    • Eddie Brosnan July 7, 2011, 2:47 PM

      The lower picture is false color. It’s a typo in the caption.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False-color

  • Anonymous July 7, 2011, 1:46 PM

    Very early spring super storm, just when we thought humans were causing climate change.

    • Torbjörn Larsson July 7, 2011, 1:57 PM

      So what?

      – Weather isn’t climate.
      – Saturn isn’t Earth. Some of the planets have greenhouses like Earth, and some planets cool while other gets warm.
      – AGW theory isn’t dependent on this data. It is satisfactorily tested to 2 sigma, which satisfies climate scientists.* It is a better diagnose than you would get on a hospital; presumably you want treatment when you are sick!? Earth is “sick” (climate changing due to society).

      ———–
      It is trivial to estimate when the observed signal is strong enough to allow for physics sciences 3 sigma testing. I put even odds that it will occur before the next IPCC release -14…

      • Dave Byrne July 17, 2011, 4:28 PM

        I guess it’s OK for you to inject politics, but if anybody else does its ‘science denying trolling’? He didn’t even mention AGW, but the more generic ‘climate change’, which it is, but that was enough to push your buttons. I guess posting this on Sunday was sacrilegious at the Church of Global Warming.

        The pictures were interesting. I wonder what effect the sunlight reflected off the rings has on northern hemisphere of Saturn? It’s obvious it stops much of the visible light from reaching a band in the southern part.

        • Torbjörn Larsson July 17, 2011, 4:53 PM

          Climate science isn’t politics, and that humans are causing climate change is a known fact among climate scientists. You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

          To compound masterscope’s error you paint climate science and its new main theory on Earth’s greenhouse climate as religious. Well, that is confirmation that I was correct in asking masterscope to stop encouraging science denial.

          Here is an acknowledged summary of climate science by climate scientists among others, for the public and decision makers. It is _a lot_ of support.

          • Dave Byrne July 20, 2011, 4:09 AM

            Are these are the same scientists that cooked the data on temperature rise, sea level rising? Are these the same scientists that are in danger of losing their funding and jobs if there is no ‘warming’? These are the scientists that help support the decisions of the decision makers. It’s just a little to incestuous to be taken without some objectivity. When you realize the tax money, buying carbon credits, that is to be gathered up in the name of global warming, you start seeing greed instead of scientific proof of a very doubtful theory. AGW is still a theory isn’t it? I thought it might have transitioned to dogma from the way some talk about it.

            Put me down in the waiting for proof category, with my BS detector pegged on Extreme Danger.

  • Jason Melquist July 7, 2011, 2:40 PM

    Efrain Morales (http://jaicoa-observatory.com/ ) in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico has some truly amazing images he’s taken of the storm. Although technically an amature, his work is very high quality:
    http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=54342905@N05&q=saturn%20storm

  • SparkyJP July 7, 2011, 4:07 PM

    Elenin is coming closer! Their is on alignment of Saturn, ELE-nin, Mercury, and the Sun today (7-7-2011). It appears that ELEnin could be causing these massive electrical storms on Saturn due to this alignment.

    • IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE July 7, 2011, 4:50 PM

      Dude, are you serious or just being silly?

      • SparkyJP July 7, 2011, 8:09 PM

        I’m DEAD serious …… but I hope I’m wrong. There’s just too much evidence to support this theory. If I’m wrong, then I’ve caused myself a little embarrassment, I’ll take off my tin foil hat and I’ll tuck my tail between my legs and shut-up. If I’m right, then hopefully I’ve helped alert some people and they took the appropriate action to help themselves and their families. But at this point, I believe the only thing you can do is stick head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.

        http://members.beforeitsnews.com/story/741/724/ELENIN_-_7-7_WARNING.html

        • WaxyMary July 7, 2011, 9:04 PM

          @Sparky or Sparks,

          I see what you are getting at, and wish to caution you now, before your retreat to your redoubt, that your views might be a bit extremist even by the standards of the crackpots you have grown to love and care for.

          Please take heed and do not let them see your fear, smell your fear, or hear your fear.

          Have fun storming the castle!

          Mary

          • Sparks July 8, 2011, 3:06 AM

            I’m Sparks, are you the Mary from Icq?

          • WaxyMary July 8, 2011, 6:17 PM

            Sparks,

            I do not IM, ShoutCast, face any books or open any spaces…

            Mary

          • Sparks July 9, 2011, 2:28 AM

            I guessed that! you don’t really come across as a sociable kind of person, just like the Mary I knew on Ircq.

          • IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE July 9, 2011, 2:05 PM

            Well, dude, she sounds like my kinda gal!

          • Sparks July 9, 2011, 7:26 PM

            Ha! I’ll bet you and Mary couldn’t make it through a romantic meal without it ending in a food fight!

            :D

          • WaxyMary July 9, 2011, 2:54 PM

            Sparks,

            I must have been wrong thinking either of the two names applied to either of the two posters, but, sockpuppet or not…

            You are an AGW denier and from the posts of yours (Sparks at the Telegraph) I have read you seem no less nor more than you seem here.

            Maybe you are not the loon –as Sparky presents himself, and are as reasonable as the day is long in areas not presently visible to us in this and other forums you frequent.

            You are still attempting to place your uneducated opinion before the eyes of many with the post modernist claim of “all opinions are equal’ and when there is any doubt, real or not, injected or not, you voice your opinion as it is given you by those in the AGW denier circuit.

            If your inability to ‘logic’ your way out of any box this poor (box of AWG deniers) is as you have shown in your posts I propose the provider of penny stocks visit you soon.

            You make broad claims which are not backed by any clearly scientific measurements – even in areas such as statistical analysis with your claim of AWG being dead, science is brought to bear and figures of sigma are assigned. You paint with a broader brush than will fit the can of facts you claim to be using for your dipping well.

            As far as reading my post above, addressed to both you and SparkyJP, for content you failed there as well. The reference to “Have fun storming the castle.” was the hook — do some fact checking about this phrase now since you did not then, seems you did not care anymore to check this than you cared to check your facts about AGW vs sulfur vs –well, you do get the point here, I hope.

            Mary

          • Sparks July 9, 2011, 7:21 PM

            “It has been conceded by the majority of AGW proponents that there has been no global warming present since 1998 and with the onset of the lower than usual solar activity and the main stream scientific community pointing towards a new Maunder Minimum and possibly a new little ice age”

            Is the fair, factual and accurate comment I made as I understand it, I did NOT state either way if I believe in AGW or not.

            I’ll agree that I have a contentious side when trying to explore the facts of any issue and if you have read any of my comments you will see that I tend to take flack from both sides on any issue, Again It’s how I explore an issue in depth. I find that it is a very effective method although it can be tiresome sifting through all the childish name calling and the “I right you’re wrong” attitudes.

            :)

        • Scott Gruber July 9, 2011, 1:44 PM

          Well, 7/7/11 came and went without incident. Guess your idiotic “alignment theory” was wrong after all, and the movements of distant planets and a tiny comet have no effect on our planet whatsoever.

          Hope you had fun in your panic bunker!

    • Jeffrey Scott Boerst July 7, 2011, 9:17 PM

      Kolob…

  • Jeffrey Scott Boerst July 7, 2011, 9:13 PM

    “…developing an enormous degree of wavy, even sensuous, details, reminiscent of the clouds on Jupiter.” To misquote National Lampoon’s Animal House, “Gas Giant Super Storm clouds are sensuAL… People are sensuOUS.” ~lol!

    • Carolyn Porco July 7, 2011, 10:48 PM

      Read the dictionary: sensous means “Relating to or affecting the senses rather than the intellect.” Sensual means “Of or arousing gratification of the senses and physical, esp. sexual, pleasure” Storm clouds are sensual? Gee…you’re easy ;-)

      • Maurizio Morabito July 7, 2011, 11:12 PM

        Carolyn – is it possible you meant “sinuous” rather than “sensous”?

      • Maurizio Morabito July 7, 2011, 11:12 PM

        Carolyn – is it possible you meant “sinuous” rather than “sensous”?

  • Gerald Dougherty July 8, 2011, 7:46 PM

    Fantastic photo, exciting story and fantastic sound from Saturn’s epic storm!!! Great coverage, and an awesome story!! Photos of the storm profile and dimensions are also out of this world (pun intended!).
    Jerry/ Atlanta (interested amateur astronomer, and retired engineer)

  • Gerald Dougherty July 8, 2011, 7:46 PM

    Fantastic photo, exciting story and fantastic sound from Saturn’s epic storm!!! Great coverage, and an awesome story!! Photos of the storm profile and dimensions are also out of this world (pun intended!).
    Jerry/ Atlanta (interested amateur astronomer, and retired engineer)

  • Gerald Dougherty July 8, 2011, 7:48 PM

    Also having trouble “Liking” this.

  • Damian July 9, 2011, 4:48 PM

    One day in the future; Saturn storm hypersonic cloud surfing will be all the rage. :) Epic !

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