Astronomers Observe Colossal Saturn Storm

LOS ANGELES (AP) — It began as a bright white dot in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Within days, the dot grew larger and stormier.

Soon the tempest enveloped the ringed planet, triggering lightning flashes thousands of times more intense than on Earth.

The international Cassini spacecraft and ground telescopes have been tracking the turbulence since last December, visible from Earth as a type of storm known as a “Great White Spot.”

“It’s still going like crazy,” said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

>> Listen: Cassini Spacecraft Records Saturn Lightning

Such planet-wide weather disturbances are rare on Saturn, where the atmosphere is typically hazy and calm. Since 1876, astronomers have observed only five other megastorms on Saturn.

“This is a one-of-a-kind storm,” said Andrew Ingersoll, a self-described planetary weatherman at the California Institute of Technology, who was part of the discovery team.

Scientists have long studied weather on other planets. One of the solar system’s most famous landmarks is Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a hurricane-like storm that has been raging for centuries. Landers and rovers to Mars’ surface often carried weather stations, dodged dust storms and sought favorable places to park during the winter.

An instrument aboard Cassini, which is orbiting Saturn, first picked up radio outbursts on Dec. 5, 2010 from a lightning storm. Around the same time, amateur astronomers peering through telescopes saw a bright point in Saturn’s northern half. Further observations confirmed it was a brewing storm.

The storm system, which occurred during the start of Saturn spring, grew in size and intensity, eventually stretching around the planet. Scientists don’t exactly know what stirs up the storms, but they think it could be linked to the change of seasons.

At the height of the storm, Cassini detected 10 lightning strikes per second. Scientists said the electrical activity emitted by the bursts were 10,000 times stronger than lightning on Earth.

The findings were described in two papers published in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

The new work represents “some of the most detailed observations so far of such a dramatic event,” Peter Read of the University of Oxford wrote in an accompanying editorial.

Saturn’s violent weather differs from Earth and Jupiter in significant ways. Lightning storms on Earth tend to be localized and short-lived, lasting only a few hours. Jupiter storms can last for days and lightning is far more common there than on Saturn.

Since entering orbit around Saturn in 2004, Cassini has witnessed 10 storms in a region of the southern hemisphere known as “storm alley” because of the high level of storm activity.

The previous storms were much weaker compared with the latest one, the first to be detected in the northern hemisphere.

  • Max

    A rather interesting phenomenon, maybe we can one day colonize Saturn too.

    • TSC

      Not possible to colonize a gas giant in the normal sense. But if it were possible to sufficiently warm up Titan one could foresee domed cities there (atmosphere being methane makes it unbreatheable).

      • aelfheld

        Methane’s not unbreathable – politicians thrive on it.

    • Paul

      Don’t think so. Saturn is a GAS GIANT. There is nowhere to stand. You just keep falling until you are crushed to death.

      • BTCG

        Just look to the Wikipedia page under “Saturn in fiction” There is at least two novels that depict a civilization living in the clouds of Saturn under large gasbags of heated hydrogen. Here’s one I have personally read:

        “The Clouds of Saturn (1998), novel by Michael McCollum. Saturn is a new place for humanity after Earth was heavily boiled by the flaring sun.”

      • chrisfrmchi

        cloud city

      • aelfheld

        Not really. Saturn has a planetary core, as does Jupiter. Thing is, by the time you get to the surface atmospheric pressure and high gravity will have turned you into a grease spot. A very thin grease spot.

  • Don Bailey

    This has got to be a result of man-made global warming …. /sarc

    • Mike

      It’s Bush’s fault.

      • David Bennett

        Oh BS man! it’s all George Washington’s fault. All of it.

      • aelfheld

        Me, I blame Adam.

    • Don Richart

      Oh most definitely global warming. It’s all our fault! How does the line go…

      Damn us, Damn us all to hell!

    • JLin

      LOL. It’s Bush’s fault.

      • Buger

        Not PC.
        It was ‘the previous administrations’ fault!

  • Louis

    Must be pollution from the inhabitants, causing Saturn’s own ‘global warming’

  • Mark Matis

    Don Bailey nailed it.

  • Bush did it!

    Obviously Saturn is undergoing global climate change caused by corporate jet owners and the like.

  • Constitution First

    There’s that nasty “Climate Change” again! LOL! I wonder who the environMentalists going to try to tax for that?

    • deegeejay

      No, but you will need to go buy a much smaller toilet tank and light bulbs that give you head aches to get the credit.

  • cm

    Send Algore!
    Saturn is in a climate crisis!

    • aelfheld

      Do they make rockets that big?

  • Kevin R.

    Must be global warming.

  • Sal

    Raise taxes on those irresponsible Saturnians!

  • PowerPC

    You can’t colonize a giant ball of gas….

  • Mustafa


    • Dan

      Interesting coincidence that Elenin was discovered around the same time this storm was first observed…

  • Vic

    Lets send al gore there to fix the problem.

  • rick

    And no one’s even drilling for oil? How can it be?
    Must be all the cows farting is my guess

    • aelfheld

      Do the cows have rings?

  • Scot

    Could be the effects of the passing comet Elenin aka Nibiru causing this. There is the chance we have a brown dwarf visitor heading our way and this is part of its entrance to the inner solar system.

    • TSC

      Given that even the smallest brown dwarf would be many times more massive than even Jupiter, how is it that one could pass near enough to Saturn to affect it’s atmosphere, but yet not cause Saturn’s orbit to change as well?

    • Rob

      God your freaking stupid

      • Szorgalmasan

        “your?” At least he can spell.

    • Willie Cundy

      Some of these comments may cause a brown dwarf to visit Uranus….

      • mhwharp

        Wonderful–I needed a laugh today–thanks

  • Kman

    I just saw Al Gore leaving on his Green Shuttle the “USS ManBearPig” to confront the irresponsible Saturians about their Hydrogen Footprint and to execute his Hydrogen Credits tax upon them. Dang you Saturians and your evil flying SUV’s!!

  • Jon Peterson

    Those dog-gone SUV drivers and fossile fuel plants on Saturn!!! shut them all down!!!

  • RayGun

    Everyone knows they don’t use SUV’s on Saturn. Its the frigg’n Jet Packs that are causing this storm.

  • BTCG

    Remember, this is the mission where The Most Reverend Al Sharpton claimed that NASA was endangering those helpless people in Africa. You see, the radioisotope thermoelectric generators on the spacecraft would cause a half-million deaths if the spaceship crashed, and NASA cynically aimed it to go over Africa (according to Doctor Sharpton) instead of over Europe. I mean, do you really believe all that nonsense about celestial naigation that NASA handed out?

    Go Al! Stifle that science!

    • Grant Smith

      NASA’s primary mission at this point is Muslim outreach, remember? That’s not Bush’s fault. I personally miss Bush, elect Jeb Bush 2012! Reality is that oil drives America and Bushes are down for bombing some folk to get some oil. Be a patriot!

  • Steve

    Bunch of ignorant kids about climate change.

    • aelfheld

      There’s a difference between ignorance and stupidity.

      Ignorance is remediable.

      Can’t fix stupid.

      Sux to be you, dude.

  • Varmint

    Uh, if you believe the comment left by Rob about Elenin is stupid you may want to turn the looking glass upon yourself.

    Theres far more proof that Elenin is causing disruptions in our solar system then not.

    Of course, your government would tell you if there was something wrong huh? Just like they told you in 2004 that a comet twice the size of Jupiter almost hit the sun and wiped us out huh?

    Me thinks the conspiracy thoerists are the ones that dont believe. Just keep watching American Idol and drink your beer….nothing to see here.

    Buncha tools lol.

    • TSC

      How can a comet be twice the size of Jupiter? The combined mass of the entire Oort Cloud (where comets originate) is estimated to be only 40 times that of earth. Jupiter’s mass alone is more than 300 times that of earth, so a comet twice the size of Jupiter would have a mass between 500-600 times that of earth. There isn’t enough material in the entire Oort Cloud to produce a comet that Size.

    • Mikey

      Please. Elenin and Nibiru and Nemisis and all the other crackpot theories have already been shown to be just that, crackpot theories. Hell even Leonid Elenin (the guy that discovered the comet Elenin) estimates that Elenin is only 3-4 km in diameter.

      He even ran a simulation where the mass of Elenin was increased to that of a brown dwarf and showed that it’s gravitational forces would be shifting planets long before it showed up in our solar system. Get a grip man.

    • nunya

      Your fate is the same as ours, regardless of your hate.

    • aelfheld

      Suppose you were an idiot. Suppose you were a ignorant conspiracy theorist. But I repeat myself.

      Halley’s comet is approximately 15 kilometers long, 8 kilometers wide and perhaps 8 kilometers thick.

      Jupiter has a diameter of 142,984 kilometers (the Earth has a diameter of 12,756 kilometers).

      Anything more than ten times the size of our planet headed towards the sun could not be hidden.

      There was no ‘comet twice the size of Jupiter’.

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