By: SPACE.com Staff
Published: 10/26/2012 10:54 AM EDT on SPACE.com
A massive storm that encircled Saturn nearly two years ago was even more powerful than scientists had thought, new research reveals.
Observations by NASA's Cassini spacecraft — which first detected the tempest in December 2010 — show that the enormous Saturn storm sent temperatures in the planet's stratosphere soaring 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66 degrees Celsius) above normal, according to a new study.
"This temperature spike is so extreme it's almost unbelievable, especially in this part of Saturn's atmosphere, which typically is very stable," study lead author Brigette Hesman, of the University of Maryland and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a statement.
"To get a temperature change of the same scale on Earth, you'd be going from the depths of winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the height of summer in the Mojave Desert," added Hesman, whose team describes its results in a paper to be published in the Nov. 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. [Video: Saturn's Monster Storm]
The team also detected a huge surge of ethylene at the time of the storm, which apparently produced 100 times more of the odorless, colorless gas than had been thought possible for Saturn. Its origin is a mystery.
"We've really never been able to see ethylene on Saturn before, so this was a complete surprise," said Goddard's Michael Flasar, team lead for Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer instrument.
The monster Saturn storm was one of the planet's so-called Great White Spots, which tend to pop up every 30 Earth years or so (or roughly once every Saturn year). This most recent one grew to encircle the planet by late January 2011, and it eventually extended about 9,000 miles (15,000 kilometers) from north to south before appearing to sputter out in late June of that year.
The tempest was the longest-lived such storm ever observed on Saturn, scientists have said. And it was the first one ever to be studied up-close by an orbiting spacecraft.
Cassini also observed two odd patches of warm air shining brightly in the stratosphere during the storm, indicating a massive release of energy into the planet's atmosphere.
In a separate study appearing in the journal Icarus, which looked at infrared data from Cassini and two Earth-based telescopes, another research team describes how these two patches merged to become the biggest and hottest stratospheric vortex ever observed in our solar system. At first, this vortex was larger than Jupiter's famous Great Red Spot.
Though visible signs of the Saturn storm are no longer evident, the Saturn vortex persists to this day. But it's unlikely to have the 300-year-plus staying power of the Great Red Spot; scientists think the vortex will likely dissipate by the end of 2013.
"These studies will give us new insight into some of the photochemical processes at work in the stratospheres of Saturn, other giants in our solar system, and beyond," said Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
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A crescent Enceladus appears with Saturn's rings in this Cassini spacecraft view of the moon.
With giant Saturn hanging in the blackness and sheltering Cassini from the sun's blinding glare, the spacecraft viewed the rings as never before, revealing previously unknown faint rings and even glimpsing its home world.
This is an artist's concept of the Saturnian plasma sheet based on data from Cassini magnetospheric imaging instrument. It shows Saturn's embedded 'ring current,' an invisible ring of energetic ions trapped in the planet's magnetic field. Saturn is at the center, with the red 'donut' representing the distribution of dense neutral gas outside Saturn's icy rings. Beyond this region, energetic ions populate the plasma sheet to the dayside magnetopause filling the faintly sketched magnetic flux tubes to higher latitudes and contributing to the ring current. The plasma sheet thins gradually toward the nightside. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
A quartet of Saturn's moons, from tiny to huge, surround and are embedded within the planet's rings in this Cassini composition.
This stunning false-color view of Saturn's moon Hyperion reveals crisp details across the strange, tumbling moon's surface. Differences in color could represent differences in the composition of surface materials. The view was obtained during Cassini's very close flyby on Sept. 26, 2005. Hyperion has a notably reddish tint when viewed in natural color. The red color was toned down in this false-color view, and the other hues were enhanced, in order to make more subtle color variations across Hyperion's surface more apparent.
The colorful globe of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, passes in front of the planet and its rings in this true color snapshot from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
Vertical structures, among the tallest seen in Saturn's main rings, rise abruptly from the edge of Saturn's B ring to cast long shadows on the ring in this image taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft two weeks before the planet's August 2009 equinox. Part of the Cassini Division, between the B and the A rings, appears at the top of the image, showing ringlets in the inner division.
Flying past Saturn's moon Dione, Cassini captured this view which includes two smaller moons, Epimetheus and Prometheus, near the planet's rings.
Data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft show that the sizes and patterns of dunes on Saturn's moon Titan vary as a function of altitude and latitude. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, and NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team
Saturn's small, potato-shaped moon Prometheus appears embedded within the planet's rings near the center of this Cassini spacecraft view while the larger moon Mimas orbits beyond the rings.
The line of Saturn's rings disrupts the Cassini spacecraft's view of the moons Tethys and Titan.
Although traveling at great speed, the Cassini spacecraft managed to capture this close view of Saturn's small moon Helene during a flyby on March 3, 2010. Saturn's atmosphere makes up the background of this composition.
The Cassini spacecraft looks at a brightly illuminated Enceladus and examines the surface of the leading hemisphere of this Saturnian moon.
Saturn's third-largest moon Dione can be seen through the haze of its largest moon, Titan, in this view of the two posing before the planet and its rings from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
Saturn's moon Mimas peeks out from behind the night side of the larger moon Dione in this Cassini image captured during the spacecraft's Dec. 12, 2011, flyby of Dione.
A quintet of Saturn's moons come together in the Cassini spacecraft's field of view for this portrait.
The best view of Saturn's rings in the ultraviolet indicates there is more ice toward the outer part of the rings, than in the inner part, hinting at the origins of the rings and their evolution.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft obtained this unprocessed image on Dec. 12, 2011.
Recent Cassini images of Saturn's moon Enceladus backlit by the sun show the fountain-like sources of the fine spray of material that towers over the south polar region. The image was taken looking more or less broadside at the 'tiger stripe' fractures observed in earlier Enceladus images. It shows discrete plumes of a variety of apparent sizes above the limb of the moon. The greatly enhanced and colorized image shows the enormous extent of the fainter, larger-scale component of the plume.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft obtained this unprocessed image on Dec. 12, 2011.
Saturn sits nested in its rings of ice as Cassini once again plunges toward the graceful giant. This natural color mosaic was acquired by the Cassini spacecraft as it soared 39 degrees above the unilluminated side of the rings.