September 4, 2013 12:02 pm
Updated: September 4, 2013 12:06 pm

Monster storm on Saturn packed a punch

A visible light image of the storm as it swept across Saturn, together with the infrared image (inset) that shows water and ammonia ices.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Univ. of Arizona/Univ. of Wisconsin

TORONTO – Using NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, scientists have found that an incredible storm that raged across Saturn in 2010 – encircling the massive planet – was able to churn up water ice from great depths.

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“The new finding from Cassini shows that Saturn can dredge up material from more than [160 kilometres],” said Kevin Baines, who works at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “It demonstrates in a very real sense that typically demure-looking Saturn can be just as explosive or even more so than typically stormy Jupiter.”

Saturn isn’t any stranger to monster storms, as these disturbances tear across the planet’s northern hemisphere approximately every 30 years or so. But the one in 2010 was the mother of all storms in observable history.

What makes this finding particularly interesting – and relevant – is that scientists realize that the storms on Saturn are much like storms on Earth where air and water are pushed high into the atmosphere resulting in the towering clouds of a thunderstorm.

Saturn doesn’t have a solid core like Earth does, rather it is composed of layers of clouds, sort of like a layered cake. The lower layer is made up of water clouds, the middle is made up of ammonia hydrosulfide, and then ammonia clouds are at the top.

What researchers found was that water ice had made it all the way to the top of the storm, along with ammonia ice and what they believe to be ammonium hydrosulfide.

“We think this huge thunderstorm is driving these cloud particles upward, sort of like a volcano bringing up material from the depths and making it visible from outside the atmosphere,” said team lead Lawrence Sromovsky.

But Saturn – the second-largest planet in our solar system – does everything bigger: its storm clouds were 10 to 20 times taller and covered a larger area. And its winds? A gusty 500 km/h.

Cassini first detected the storm on Dec. 5, 2010. Not long afterward, the storm could be spotted from Earth by amateur astronomers. Soon the storm grew to incredible proportions, encircling Saturn at nearly 300,000 km. The storm was still visible in 2011.

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