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 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.

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  • Flying past Saturn's moon Dione, Cassini captured this view which includes two smaller moons, Epimetheus and Prometheus, near the planet's rings.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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