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See Saturn's magical color-changing north pole

A swirling NASA animation shows the shift in Saturn's north pole colors as seen by the Cassini spacecraft.

Saturn's colorful hexagon gets animated.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University

Saturn has pulled off an even more extreme color-changing trick than Starbucks managed with its Unicorn Frappuccino. NASA released a set of images on Wednesday showing how the planet's north polar region shifted from light blue colors in June 2013 to yellow hues by April 2017.

The hexagonal jet stream system is one of Saturn's most distinctive features (along with its trademark rings). NASA's Cassini spacecraft snapped these views, which NASA presents side-by-side in natural color to show how much Saturn has changed its decor over the years.

NASA believes the yellowish haze comes from smog particles caused by an increase in solar radiation. Saturn's northern summer solstice arrived on Wednesday, an event that happens roughly every 15 Earth years.

Despite the dramatic color differences across most of the region, the central polar vortex remains blue. Scientists think this quirk could be due to a lack of sunlight reaching that specific area.

"A second explanation hypothesizes that the polar vortex may have an internal circulation similar to hurricanes on Earth," NASA says. If that's true, any smog particles may be forced downward and out of sight.

Cassini is currently engaged in a "Grand Finale" tour of Saturn, where it's flying close to the planet by squeaking past its rings. The spacecraft, a joint project from NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, is scheduled to destroy itself by diving in Saturn's atmosphere in September.

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