Welcome back to our planetary weather series! Next up, we take a look at the ringed-beauty, Saturn!
Saturn is famous for many things. Aside from its ring system, which are the most visible and beautiful of any gas giant, it is also known for its extensive system of moons (the second largest in the Solar System behind Jupiter). And then there its banded appearance and gold color, which are the result of its peculiar composition and persistent weather patterns.
Much like Jupiter, Saturn’s weather systems are known for being particularly extreme, giving rise to features that can be seen from great distances. It’s high winds periodically create massive oval-shaped storms, jet streams, hurricanes, and hexagonal wave patterns that are visible in both the northern and southern polar regions.
The outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume. The gas giant is also known to contain heavier elements, though the proportions of these relative to hydrogen and helium is not known. It is assumed that they would match the primordial abundance from the formation of the Solar System.
Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine and methane have been also detected in Saturn’s atmosphere. The upper clouds are composed of ammonia crystals, while the lower level clouds appear to consist of either ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH) or water. Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun causes methane photolysis in the upper atmosphere, leading to a series of hydrocarbon chemical reactions with the resulting products being carried downward by eddies and diffusion.
Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits a banded pattern similar to Jupiter’s, but Saturn’s bands are much fainter and wider near the equator. As with Jupiter’s cloud layers, they are divided into the upper and lower layers, which vary in composition based on depth and pressure. In the upper cloud layers, with temperatures in range of 100–160 K and pressures between 0.5–2 bar, the clouds consist of ammonia ice.
The presence of hydrogen gas results in clouds of deep red. However, these are obscured by clouds of ammonia, which are closer to the outer edge of the atmosphere and cover the entire planet. The exposure of this ammonia to the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation causes it to appear white. Combined with its deeper red clouds, this results in the planet having a pale gold color.
Water ice clouds begin at a level where the pressure is about 2.5 bar and extend down to 9.5 bar, where temperatures range from 185–270 K. Intermixed in this layer is a band of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, lying in the pressure range 3–6 bar with temperatures of 290–235 K. Finally, the lower layers, where pressures are between 10–20 bar and temperatures are 270–330 K, contains a region of water droplets with ammonia in an aqueous solution.
Great White Spot:
On occasion, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits long-lived ovals, similar to what is commonly observed on Jupiter. Whereas Jupiter has the Great Red Spot, Saturn periodically has what’s known as the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval). This unique but short-lived phenomenon occurs once every Saturnian year, roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.
These spots can be several thousands of kilometers wide, and have been observed in 1876, 1903, 1933, 1960, and 1990. Since 2010, a large band of white clouds called the Northern Electrostatic Disturbance have been observed enveloping Saturn, which was spotted by the Cassini space probe. If the periodic nature of these storms is maintained, another one will occur in about 2020.
The winds on Saturn are the second fastest among the Solar System’s planets, after Neptune’s. This is due in part to Saturn’s high rotational velocity – which is 9.87 km/s (6.13 mi/s), which works out to 35,500 km/h (22,058.7 mi/h). At this rate, it only takes the planet 10 hours 33 minutes to rotate once on its axis. However, due to it being a gas giant, there is a difference between the rotation of its atmosphere and its core.
Data obtained by the Voyager 1 and 2 missions indicated peak easterly winds of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn’s northern and southern poles have also shown evidence of stormy weather. At the north pole, this takes the form of a hexagonal wave pattern, whereas the south shows evidence of a massive jet stream.
The persisting hexagonal wave pattern around the north pole was first noted in the Voyager images. The sides of the hexagon are each about 13,800 km (8,600 mi) long (which is longer than the diameter of the Earth) and the structure rotates with a period of 10h 39m 24s, which is assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn’s interior.
The south pole vortex, meanwhile, was first observed using the Hubble Space Telescope. These images indicated the presence of a jet stream, but not a hexagonal standing wave. These storms are estimated to be generating winds of 550 km/h, are comparable in size to Earth, and believed to have been going on for billions of years.
In 2006, the Cassini space probe observed a hurricane-like storm that had a clearly defined eye. Such storms had not been observed on any planet other than Earth – even on Jupiter. This storm appeared to be caused by heat that was generated in the depths of the warm interior of Saturn, which then escaped to the upper atmosphere and escaped the planet.
Saturn has also been noted for its “string of pearls” feature, which was captured by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer in 2006. This feature, which appeared in it’s northern latitudes (and has not been seen on any other gas giant) is a series of cloud clearings spaced at regular intervals that show how Saturn’s atmosphere is lit by its own internal, thermal glow.
So how is the weather on Saturn? Pretty violent and stormy! And not surprising given the planet’s mass, composition, powerful gravity, and rapid rotation. Makes you feel happy we live on Earth, where the Earth is (comparatively speaking) pretty calm and boring!
We have written many interesting articles about planetary weather here at Universe Today. Here’s What’s the Weather Like on Mercury?, What’s the Weather Like on Venus?, What’s the Weather Like on Mars?, What’s the Weather Like on Jupiter?, What is the Weather Like on Uranus? and What is the Weather Like on Neptune?
For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration – Saturn, and the facts about Saturn from Space Facts.
Astronomy Cast has recorded some interesting episode on the subject. Here’s Episode 59: Saturn, and Episode 61: Saturn’s Moons.