NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is the gift that keeps on giving. The photos it provides us of Saturn, the most picturesque planet around, continue to dazzle, particularly the recent big one. Cassini completed its first four-year mission back in 2008 and is now on the Cassini Solstice Mission, which will allow the spacecraft to examine Saturn during its other season. When Cassini first arrived, it was winter in the north and summer in the south, so Cassini’s sticking around to see what the seasonal reversals bring. Maybe summer in the north is the bomb, yo. Which it seems to be. Check it out.
It turns out that lots of crazy fun happens at Saturn’s north pole during the summer — namely, serious wind. In this case, a jet stream with six-sides. That’s right — there’s a hexagonal hurricane swirling around right where Saturn’s Santa lives. The hexagon is roughly 20,000 miles across and the winds that comprise it move at around 200 miles per hour. In the center is a huge rotating storm. While Jupiter is famous for its Great Red Spot, I think this hexagonal storm wins the weather. Astronomers believe that the storm raging there could be decades or even centuries old.
And while that’s pretty awesome in theory, it’s crazy awesome when you watch the colorized movie of the jet stream. The false color rendering method better illuminates distinctions between particles. Inside the hexagon, there’s a high concentration of small haze particles, but on the outside, there’s a high concentration of large haze particles. The jet stream forms something like a barrier between them, similar to the way a jet stream encloses the hole in Earth’s ozone. The red gif is an infrared movie showing the hexagonal jet stream, courtesy of Cassini’s infrared mapping spectrometer. The cloud silhouettes stand out against the Saturn’s infrared light — they appear dark because their large, thick particles block out the light. There’s a black-and-white version as well.
Saturn’s summer solstice will take place in 2017, so astronomers expect the light over Saturn’s north pole to get better and better, which means we can look forward to more eye candy. And some people say NASA isn’t important!