Monster 3,000-mile-wide storm wreaks havoc on normally quiet Saturn

NASA satellite tracks rare thunderstorm on Saturn

saturn storm
NASA said today its Cassini spacecraft was tracking a 3,000-mile-wide storm on Saturn that stretches around the ringed planet and could ultimately change its atmosphere.  

NASA's Cassini satellite, in conjunction with the ground-based European Southern Observatory, have tracked the growth of the storm since it began as a small disturbance in December 2010. Now, NASA says the storm as sent deep plumes high up in Saturn's usually stable stratosphere, generating regions of warm air that shine like beacons on Cassini's infrared system.

More great telescope pictures: NASA telescopes watch cosmic violence, mysteries unravel

The violence of the storm -- the strongest disturbances ever detected in Saturn's stratosphere -- took researchers by surprise, NASA said. What started as an ordinary disturbance deep in Saturn's atmosphere punched through the planet's serene cloud cover to roil its stratosphere.

From NASA: "Other indications of the storm's strength are the changes in the composition of the atmosphere brought on by the mixing of air from different layers. Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) found evidence of such changes by looking at the amounts of acetylene and phosphine, both considered to be tracers of atmospheric motion. A separate analysis using Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, led by Kevin Baines of JPL, confirmed the storm is very violent, dredging up larger atmospheric particles and churning up ammonia from deep in the atmosphere in volumes several times larger than previous storms. Other Cassini scientists are studying the evolving storm, and a more extensive picture will emerge soon."

"A storm like this is rare. This is only the sixth one to be recorded since 1876, and the last was way back in 1990," says Leigh Fletcher, the study's lead author and a Cassini team scientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

"On Earth, the lower stratosphere is where commercial airplanes generally fly to avoid storms which can cause turbulence," added Brigette Hesman, a scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park who works on the CIRS team at Goddard and is the second author on a paper about the storm published in this week's Science Magazine. "If you were flying in an airplane on Saturn, this storm would reach so high up, it would probably be impossible to avoid it."

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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