Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the solar system’s largest storm at 10,000 miles in diameter, has long been an iconic feature of the gas giant. However, recent research shows that Saturn, a planet often perceived as dimmer than its living counterpart, is not devoid of its own atmospheric wonders and megastorms.
A new study jointly led by the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor has revealed that Saturn is also experiencing massive megastorms. Occurring every two to thirty years, these storms, while infrequent, have long-lasting effects that reverberate deep within the planet’s atmosphere and persist for centuries.
Studying mega storms on Saturn
A key method in this discovery was the analysis of Saturn’s radio emissions from below the planet’s surface. Researchers have found unexpected disturbances in ammonia gas distribution that have been linked to past major storms in the northern hemisphere.
Explaining the size and mystery of these storms, lead author Cheng Li said, “Understanding the mechanisms of the largest storms in the solar system puts hurricane theory in a broader cosmic context, challenges our current knowledge and pushes the boundaries of terrestrial meteorology.”
The team used the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico, a state-of-the-art facility that captures radio emissions from the depths of gas giants. Imke de Pater is a senior researcher on gas giants. “At radio wavelengths, we probe beneath the visible cloud layers on giant planets… Radio observations help characterize dynamic, physical and chemical processes, including heat transport, cloud formation and convection, in the atmospheres of giant planets at both global and local scales. ”
What the researchers learned
The study is now available in the journal Science Advances, documented an intriguing finding by de Pater, Li, and UC Berkeley graduate student Chris Moeckel. They observed anomalies in the concentration of ammonia gas in Saturn’s atmosphere.
At mid-altitudes, just below the uppermost ammonia-ice cloud layer, there is a noticeable drop in ammonia concentration. However, deeper in the atmosphere, there is an elevation between 100 and 200 kilometers below.
The team suggests that this change in ammonia distribution is due to precipitation and reevaporation processes. Impressively, this atmospheric change, once initiated by a megastorm, could continue for several centuries.
But even though Jupiter and Saturn are both composed primarily of hydrogen gas, their atmospheric behavior differs significantly. Jupiter’s tropospheric anomalies are related to its different regions and belts and are not storm-induced like those of Saturn.
This stark contrast between the two neighboring gas giants is reshaping scientists’ understanding of megastorm formation on both these planets and potentially others in distant galaxies. As we continue our quest to discover and understand exoplanets, these findings could reshape the way we detect and study megastorms beyond our solar system.
More about Saturn
As the sixth planet from the Sun, Saturn captivates the imagination of stargazers and scientists alike. With its stunning ring system and gigantic size, Saturn stands as a fascinating jewel of our solar system. Let’s dive deep into this fascinating gas giant.
Saturn claims the title of the second largest planet in our solar system, only being overshadowed by Jupiter. It has a diameter of approximately 74,600 miles (120,000 kilometers). Interestingly, the planet is mostly composed of hydrogen and helium, which gives it its characteristic gas giant classification.
Despite its gigantic size, Saturn rotates rapidly on its axis and completes a day in about 10.7 hours. However, its journey around the Sun takes significantly longer – about 29.5 Earth years to complete a full orbit.
No discussion of Saturn can bypass its iconic rings. Consisting mainly of ice particles and some rocky debris, these dazzling structures surround the planet and extend up to 282,000 kilometers from its centre. They are divided into several groups, which are named alphabetically in order of discovery.
Although they may appear solid from afar, the rings are made up of individual particles ranging from small, dust-sized icy grains to large rocks several meters in diameter. Scientists believe these rings are formed from the fragmented remains of moons, asteroids or comets.
Beyond its rings, Saturn is home to an impressive collection of more than 145 known moons. The largest, Titan, surpasses even Mercury in size. Titan has a thick atmosphere, making it the center of attention of scientists for its potential for prebiotic life.
Atmosphere and climate
Dive into Saturn’s atmosphere and you will find it filled with clouds of ammonia and methane. The planet displays a banded appearance, very similar to Jupiter, due to its wind patterns and cloud formations. Wind speeds on Saturn can reach up to 1,800 kilometers per hour, especially around the equator.
Mysterious megastorms periodically appear on Saturn. They occur roughly every 30 years and can span tens of thousands of kilometers. Recent research even suggests that these storms could have lasting effects on Saturn’s atmosphere.
Discovery of Saturn
Saturn has attracted people’s attention for centuries. The Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, and Voyager 2 missions in the 20th century gave us the first close-up images.
However, it was the Cassini-Huygens mission launched in 1997 that provided the most detailed examination of the planet, its rings and moons. Cassini spent 13 years orbiting Saturn before deliberately plunging into the planet in 2017, offering unprecedented insights.
With its golden glow, stunning rings and satellite collection, Saturn continues to be a miracle in our night sky. As we continue our explorations, each discovery of this gas giant increases its appeal and deepens the mysteries that remain to be solved.
Whether you’re a seasoned astronomer or a casual stargazer, Saturn continues to beckon you, promising a mix of beauty and cosmic intrigue.
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