Hubble has captured a new image of Saturn that makes you wonder if it’s even real. The image is so crisp it makes it look like Saturn is just floating in space. Which it is.
This image of the ringed-planet was captured when Saturn was at its closest to Earth, some 1.36 billion km away (845 million miles) on June 20th, 2019. The crisp image was captured with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3.)
This is an artful image that wouldn’t be out of place on a gallery wall. (As long as that gallery was curated by a space nerd.) But it’s more than just pretty: it’s scientific.
The image is part of a program called Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL.) OPAL’s goal is to accumulate long-baseline imagery of our Solar System’s gas giant planets, to help us understand their atmospheres over time. This is the second yearly picture of Saturn as part of the OPAL program.
Saturn always looks so placid. Stately, even. But closer inspection reveals a lot going on there. When we think of storms and gas giants, we usually think of Jupiter, with its prominent horizontal storm bands, and of course, the Great Red Spot. But Saturn is a very active, stormy planet as well.
Thanks to the OPAL program, we know that a large hexagonal storm in the planet’s north polar region has disappeared. And smaller storms come and go frequently. There are also subtle changes in the planet’s storm bands, which are largely ammonia ice at the top.
But some features have persisted.
Cassini spotted the hexagonal storm at Saturn’s north pole, and that storm is still there. In fact, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was first to spot that feature back in 1981.
Mostly though, this new Hubble image of Saturn is just beautiful. Even if you knew nothing about Saturn, its beauty would draw you in.
NASA also released an annotated, more informational version of the Hubble image.
NASA also released a time-lapse video of Hubble images of Saturn. It shows the moons, or at least a few of Saturn’s 60+ moons, as they orbit around the gas giant. It’s made up of 33 separate images taken on June 19th and 20th, 2019.