NASA releases Saturn 'hexagon' images like never seen before

Spanning 20,000 miles and whipping up winds of 200 miles per hour, this massive six-sided storm clustered around the planet's north pole is a sight to behold.

This is NASA's Cassini mission's highest-resolution view of a six-sided storm clustered around Saturn's north pole.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A bizarre, funnel-shaped cloud formation churning around Saturn's north pole was first noticed in the 1980s in Voyager flybys. Eventually, this mass became known as "the hexagon."

Any images of this cloudy mass have been muted and blurry at best -- until now. NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured new images of the hexagon that show it off in all of its unearthly glory.

The hexagon is a unique six-sided jet stream with a roiling rotating storm at its center. It spans roughly 20,000 miles and whips up 200 mph winds. According to NASA, no other weather feature like this has been detected in our solar system.

"The hexagon is just a current of air, and weather features out there that share similarities to this are notoriously turbulent and unstable," Cassini imaging team member at the California Institute of Technology Andrew Ingersoll said in a statement. "A hurricane on Earth typically lasts a week, but this has been here for decades -- and who knows -- maybe centuries."

NASA believes the hexagon's stability is due to Saturn being made up of a smooth ball of gas. Earth, on the other hand, has uneven solid landforms, like mountains and icecaps, which tend to interrupt weather patterns.

The new images of the hexagon have color filters to show a complete view of Saturn; they were captured over a 10-hour time span with high-resolution cameras. To human eyes, the natural colors of the hexagon would appear in tones of gold and blue (see photo below). NASA said it was able to get these new detailed images because the sun began to shine on the inside of the storm in late 2012. And, apparently, it's just going to get better.

"As we approach Saturn's summer solstice in 2017, lighting conditions over its north pole will improve, and we are excited to track the changes that occur both inside and outside the hexagon boundary," Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Scott Edgington said.

Cassini has been snapping tons of jaw-dropping photos of Saturn over the past year. In March, NASA released new images of the planet and its 31 moons; and, in July, it published Cassini's first images of Earth from the vantage point of Saturn and Mercury, which showed our planet as a tiny blue dot. In October, NASA released a new full view of Saturn, shot from high above its north pole.

This is a black-and-white version of the image seen above. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
This is how the hexagon's natural colors appear to the human eye -- in tones of blue and gold. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute