Since 2004, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn and sending information back to Earth. Now, for the first time, the spacecraft has provided scientists with close-up views of a giant hurricane swirling around Saturn’s north pole.
“We did a double take when we saw this because it looks so much like a hurricane on Earth,” said Cassini imaging team member Andrew Ingersoll in a statement. “But there it is at Saturn, on a much larger scale.”
Eye on the Storm
There are major differences between Saturn’s storm and hurricanes here on Earth. For one thing, Saturn’s storm is much bigger. The center of the storm is called the eye of the hurricane. On our planet, the eye usually does not span wider than 120 miles. However, the eye of Saturn’s hurricane is a massive 1,250 miles wide.
Saturn’s storm is also spinning incredibly quickly. Hurricanes on Earth can have wind speeds of 160 miles per hour. But the clouds at the outer edge of Saturn’s storm are traveling 330 miles per hour!
Earth’s hurricanes drift northward. But Saturn’s storm is locked in place—it is already as far north as it can go. “The polar hurricane has nowhere else to go, and that’s likely why it’s stuck at the pole,” says Kunio Sayani, another member of the Cassini team.
A Planetary Puzzle
Saturn’s storm is believed to have been churning for years. Although Cassini detected the storm as early as 2004, the spacecraft could not get a glimpse of it until now. At first it was winter on Saturn’s north pole, and too dark to see the storm. Then scientists had to tilt the spacecraft to get a good view of the hurricane.
Scientists plan to continue studying the enormous storm in order to better understand hurricanes on our own planet. On Earth, hurricanes form over water. But there is no body of water close to Saturn’s storm. Learning how Saturn’s storms use water vapor could help scientists better understand how hurricanes on Earth are formed.