NASA’s Cassini captures immense Saturn storm consuming itself

Scott Sutherland
GeekquinoxFebruary 3, 2013

The ringed planet Saturn is spectacular to behold, and any event that happens there is typically on such a massive scale that it seriously challenges our human comprehension. Now, after over two years of study of one of these phenomena, scientists have produced an in-depth look into an immense Saturnian storm that literally consumed itself.

In a "Saturnian version of the Ouroboros", to quote the Science Daily article, "the mythical serpent that bites its own tail," an immense storm that circled the ringed planet Saturn back in 2010 was seen to completely wrap itself around the planet's northern hemisphere and then tear itself apart when it met up with its own tail.

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"This thunder-and-lightning storm on Saturn was a beast," said Kunio Sayanagi, the lead author of the study, who is a member of the NASA Cassini mission's imaging team at Hampton University in Virginia. "The storm maintained its intensity for an unusually long time. The storm head itself thrashed for 201 days, and its updraft erupted with an intensity that would have sucked out the entire volume of Earth's atmosphere in 150 days. And it also created the largest vortex ever observed in the troposphere of Saturn, expanding up to 7,500 miles [12,000 kilometers] across."

The storm was first detected by Cassini as it formed on December 5th, 2010, and the spacecraft's sensors tracked it for the next 267 days, until August 28th, 2011, when it finally completely gave out. The deathknell of the cyclone was seen two months before, though, in June, when the head of the storm actually caught up with the turbulent tail it had left in its wake.

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It's still something of a mystery as to exactly how this head-to-tail encounter caused the immense storm to break down, however there are a few likely possibilities. If the winds in the tail maintained the same basic rotation that the storm had, when the head of the storm reached the tail, the winds from each would be blowing in opposite directions, and they would cancel each other out. However, a far more likely scenario is that winds in the turbulent wake were so chaotic and disorganized that the organized winds of the storm cyclone simply couldn't compete and it was simply torn apart by chaos.

The exciting part about this is that not only did Cassini it let us observe how one of these large storms behaves over a long period of time, but we were able to witness something we've never seen before, and definitely nothing we'll ever see here on Earth.

"This Saturn storm behaved like a terrestrial hurricane — but with a twist unique to Saturn," said study co-author Andrew Ingersoll, an imaging scientist with the Cassini team at CalTech. "Even the giant storms at Jupiter don't consume themselves like this, which goes to show that nature can play many awe-inspiring variations on a theme and surprise us again and again."

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