The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft launched by NASA has taken the first nearby, visible-light views of a large hurricane near the north pole of Saturn.
Swirling inside a large, hexagonal weather pattern, the hurricane captured by NASA is about 20 times bigger than the average hurricane found on Earth and around 1,250 miles wide. Clouds at the hurricane's outer edge travel at 330 mph.
"We did a double take when we saw this vortex because it looks so much like a hurricane on Earth," Cassini-Huygens imaging team member at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Andrew Ingersoll said. "But there it is on Saturn, on a much larger scale, and it is somehow getting by on the small amounts of water vapor in Saturn's hydrogen atmosphere."
Scientists claim that the storm has been active for years. Cassini-Huygens arrived in the Saturn system in 2004, at which time the planet's north polar winter shrouded its north pole in darkness. A vortex was visible, but a visible-light picture required the 2009 equinox, which allowed more sunlight into the region. A change in the orbit of Cassini-Huygens was required for the spacecraft to adequately capture the images.
Scientists are hoping that a study of the hurricane found with Cassini-Huygens will aid with the analysis of hurricanes on Earth. Specifically, scientists are curious as to how the Saturn hurricane uses water vapor in its formation. One key difference is that the hurricane on Saturn is much larger than its Earthly counterparts and spins quite fast. It is also locked into one location, unlike those on Earth which tend to drift.
"The polar hurricane has nowhere else to go, and that's likely why it's stuck at the pole," Cassini-Huygens imaging team associate at Hampton University, Kunio Sayanagi said.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a project by NASA, the Italian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.