Gawk at new images of Saturn's super-sized hurricane

NASA unveils the clearest look yet at a mega hurricane occupying Saturn's north pole.

Christopher MacManus
Crave contributor Christopher MacManus regularly spends his time exploring the latest in science, gaming, and geek culture -- aiming to provide a fun and informative look at some of the most marvelous subjects from around the world.
Christopher MacManus
2 min read
NASA's false-color image of Saturn's north pole hurricane looks similar to a rose. In this image, red correlates to low clouds while green indicates high clouds. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

NASA released the most detailed images ever seen of a gigantic hurricane that scientists believe has existed at Saturn's north pole for years.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft snapped the spectacular pictures this past November from a vantage point approximately 261,000 miles from Saturn -- a distance so extreme that the above picture has an image scale of about 1 mile per pixel.

Putting the puny weather systems here on Earth to shame, this super-size storm stretches about 1,250 miles wide and creates calamitous wind speeds of up to 330 mph. A hexagon-shaped cloud pattern, measuring 15,000 miles across (roughly the size of four Earths), surrounds the hurricane, which you can see in the photo below.

"We did a double take when we saw this vortex because it looks so much like a hurricane on Earth," said Andrew Ingersoll, a Cassini imaging team member at the California Institute of Technology. "But there it is at Saturn, on a much larger scale, and it is somehow getting by on the small amounts of water vapor in Saturn's hydrogen atmosphere."

A natural-color view of Saturn's north pole and its chaotic weather pattern. Image scale equals 18 miles per pixel. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Scientists aim to study the complex weather system and its use of water vapor (even though there isn't any nearby water) to get a better understanding of how hurricanes come to life and maintain their form.

Though scientists believe the storm has spun for years, they aren't sure of its precise duration. NASA's Voyager 1 probe initially spotted the hexagonal system in the early 1980s. When Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, the spacecraft's infrared cameras detected the signature of a massive vortex, but couldn't observe the system with visible light until Saturn's northern winter passed in late 2009.

It took several more years for NASA to alter Cassini's orbit so it could achieve this unique view.

"Such a stunning and mesmerizing view of the hurricane-like storm at the north pole is only possible because Cassini is on a sportier course, with orbits tilted to loop the spacecraft above and below Saturn's equatorial plane," said Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Check out an additional false-color image of Saturn's north pole hurricane at NASA's Web site.