Cassini Helps Understand Saturn Storms
June 24, 2013

Understanding Saturn’s Giant Storm Systems

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Scientists reported in the journal Nature Geoscience that images taken by the Cassini space probe helped them understand the nature of the giant storms on Saturn.

A team of researchers used Cassini images and computer models of the storms and clouds on Saturn to help explain the behavior of these events for the very first time. About once every 30 Earth years, an enormous storm takes place on the ringed planet, affecting various aspect of its atmosphere.

These gigantic storms have been called Great White Spots because of how they appear on Saturn’s atmosphere. Scientists first observed a storm of this magnitude on the planet back in 1876.

The Great White Spot of 2010 was the sixth such storm observed on the planet. During this storm system, NASA and the European Space Agency's (ESA) Cassini spacecraft were able to snap some high resolution images of the Great White Spot. The storm began as a brilliant white cloud in the middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere, but grew and remained active for more than seven months. Over time, a mixture of white clouds expanded to form a cloudy and turbulent ring with a surface area of millions of square miles.

Astronomers analyzed the images taken by Cassini during this storm system in order to measure the winds in the "head" of the storm, focusing on where the activity originated.

“We did not expect to find such violent circulation in the region of the development of the storm, which is a symptom of the particularly violent interaction between the storm and the planet’s atmosphere," said lead author Enrique García Melendo, researcher at the Fundació Observatori Esteve Duran – Institut de Ciències de l’Espai in Catalonia.

The team designed mathematical models to reproduce the storm on a computer. Calculations showed how the storm transports enormous quantities of moist gas in water vapor to the highest levels of the planet, which helps form visible clouds and liberates enormous quantities of energy.

This study helps enhance the knowledge of the models employed in research into meteorology and the behavior of the Earth's atmosphere.

“The storms on Saturn are, in a way, a test bank of the physical mechanisms underlying the generation of similar meteorological phenomena on Earth," commented Agustín Sánchez Lavega, Director of the Planetary Sciences Group at the UPV/EHU.

Back in January, scientists reported in the journal Icarus that this storm came to an end after it consumed itself. The gigantic storm consumed so much of the planet that it wrapped around the entire circumference of Saturn, catching up with its own tail, then fading away shortly after.