Just add water: scientists explain Saturn’s powerful thunderstorms

A giant storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, which now extends around the planet, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A giant storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, which now extends around the planet, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thunderstorms are a powerful force of nature, but the ones we experience on Earth are dwarfed by the ones on the gas giant planet Saturn. They are huge and can be larger than Earth itself, and now scientists think they know why they tend to appear most prominently every 20-30 years, encircling the entire planet with intense lightning and massive cloud disturbances.

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Cassini’s best-ever view of Saturn’s amazing hexagon

Still image from the movie sequence taken by Cassini of the colourful hexagon-shaped jet stream in Saturn’s atmosphere above the north pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University
Still image from the movie sequence taken by Cassini of the colourful hexagon-shaped jet stream in Saturn’s atmosphere above the north pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University

The solar system is full of many planets and moons, each with their own unique characteristics and features, some of which have never been seen anywhere else. One such oddity is found on Saturn – a giant hexagon-shaped jet stream surrounding the planet’s north pole. It is a natural feature in Saturn’s atmosphere, although the near-perfect six-sided formation might make you look twice. Now, the Cassini spacecraft has taken the best-ever images of this hexagon, it was announced yesterday.

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Stunning new image from Cassini of Saturn – and Mars, Earth and Venus too!

Beautiful panoramic view of Saturn, some of its moons, and even some of the inner planets including Earth, as imaged by Cassini on July 19, 2013 as part of The Day the Earth Smiled event. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Beautiful panoramic view of Saturn, some of its moons, and even some of the inner planets including Earth, as imaged by Cassini on July 19, 2013 as part of The Day the Earth Smiled event. Click on image for larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The Cassini spacecraft has taken another stunning new panoramic image, released yesterday, showing Saturn and its rings in all of their glory. It has done this before, including ones showing the Earth and Moon in the far distance, as tiny specks of light. But this new image is even better; not only does it again show Saturn and its rings beautifully backlit against the Sun in natural color, but this one also shows Mars and Venus, as well as the Earth and Moon!

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Amazing view of Saturn from above

Saturn as seen from above by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Saturn as seen from above by the Cassini spacecraft. Click image for larger version.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Gordan Ugarkovic

This stunning view of Saturn is one that can never be seen from Earth; it was taken by the Cassini spacecraft, still orbiting the huge ringed planet, from high above the equatorial plane on October 10, 2013. Only in such a view can the planet itself be seen as separate from the surrounding rings. This composite image was made from 36 individual images. Beautiful!

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Our home the Earth – as seen from Saturn and Mercury

Earth as seen by Cassini on July 19, 2013 - the tiny blue speck in the distance below Saturn's rings in this view. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI / Jason Major
Earth as seen by the Cassini spacecraft on July 19, 2013 – the tiny blue speck in the distance below Saturn’s rings in this view. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI / Jason Major

Last Friday, a remarkable thing happened, which received a lot of publicity, especially for space fans: the Earth had its photo taken – from Saturn! The Cassini spacecraft took the images, which were used for The Day the Earth Smiled event, showing the Earth as a very tiny blue speck in the distance, with Saturn and its rings looming in the foreground. Zooming in closer, the Moon can also be seen. How cool is that? But that’s not all… although it didn’t seem to get as much attention, the Earth and Moon also had their picture taken from Mercury, by the MESSENGER  spacecraft, on the same day!

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The Day the Earth Smiled – July 19, 2013

Credit: The Day the Earth Smiled
Credit: The Day the Earth Smiled

Something remarkable is going to happen next Friday, July 19, 2013. On that day, the Earth is going to have its picture taken, but not just from an orbiting satellite, from Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft, still orbiting the ringed planet, will take images of Saturn and all of its rings during an eclipse of the Sun. This has been done twice before, but this time, the view will include another tiny, far-away blue speck – the Earth, in natural colour.

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Planetary archive: Titan and Saturn’s rings

Titan floats in the distance, beyond Saturn's rings.
Titan floats in the distance, beyond Saturn’s rings. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Cassini spacecraft has taken thousands of images of Saturn and its moons, and this one is another beauty. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and the one with the methane rain, rivers and lakes, floats in space out beyond Saturn’s rings.

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How Saturn shakes its rings

As well as its moons, Saturn itself can create "waves" in its rings. Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute
As well as its moons, Saturn itself can create “waves” in its rings.
Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute

Saturn’s rings are one of the most beautiful sights in the solar system. They are an amazing planetary phenomenon – countless bits of rock, ice and dust orbiting the planet in relatively paper-thin rings, which, when seen from above, kind of look like a giant vinyl record (remember those?). Saturn’s many moons can affect the rings’ appearance due to their gravitational pull. Now, new research shows how Saturn itself can do this also, essentially “shaking” its rings.

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The ‘red rose’ of Saturn: stunning new colour images of giant hurricane

Cassini image, in false colour, showing the massive "red rose" hurricane at Saturn's north pole. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute
Cassini image, in false colour, showing the massive “red rose” hurricane at Saturn’s north pole.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute

Hurricanes are an incredible force of nature, and these huge rotating vortexes of wind are an amazing sight when viewed from space. But Earth is not the only planet that has hurricanes, and there is one on Saturn that dwarfs any on our own planet. Now, the Cassini spacecraft has taken more breath-taking colour images of this colossal wind storm.

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