A monster-sized hurricane raging around Saturn's north pole has come into focus, thanks to NASA's Cassini spacecraft, and researchers hope it will help shape our understanding of similar storms on Earth.
"Morphologically, this giant storm resembles that of hurricanes and typhoons on Earth—with an eye at its center and spiraling clouds outside—but this Saturnian hurricane is on a titanic scale," said Kunio Sayanagi, a Cassini imaging team member at Hampton University in Virginia.
Just the eye of the storm is estimated to stretch 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) across—more than 20 times larger than hurricanes that swirl on Earth. Scientists aren't sure when the hurricane formed, but speculate that it could be a permanent weather feature, said fellow Cassini imaging team scientist Andrew Ingersoll at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
When Cassini first arrived at the gas giant in 2004, the planet's northern hemisphere was deep in winter, with its north pole tilted away from the sun and shrouded in darkness. But the orbiter's two infrared cameras—which act like night-vision goggles—were able to pierce through the polar night and capture the first hints of the massive storm's existence.
With the eye of the storm being an actual hole in the clouds, the deeper, warmer layers of Saturn's atmosphere were exposed, showing up on the cameras as a telltale thermal emission, said Sayanagi.
"These cameras don't have very high resolution, but still saw a [infrared] hotspot at the pole earlier in the mission, which we found interesting," he explained.
Springtime for Saturn's northern hemisphere arrived in 2009, but Cassini researchers weren't able to get the spacecraft into the proper orbit to take pictures of the hurricane with optical cameras until November 2012.