Moon and Saturn

StarDate: January 14, 2009

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The planet Saturn looks calm and serene. Wide bands of clouds encircle the planet. They're colored in shades of gold, ivory, and tan by chemicals in the upper atmosphere. And in pictures that show the whole planet, there's no evidence of monster storms like those that swirl through the skies of Jupiter, the solar system's bigger "giant" planet.

Yet observations by the Cassini spacecraft show that Saturn isn't as calm as it looks. Cassini's instruments can look deep into the clouds, where they see big storm systems with thunderstorms that are thousands of times stronger than those on Earth.

In fact, giant storms encircle both of Saturn's poles. They span thousands of miles, and the winds at their perimeters blast along at more than 300 miles per hour.

The storms are a lot like the hurricanes on Earth. As water from thunderstorms falls deep into Saturn's atmosphere, it releases heat. The heat drives the storms -- just like Earthly hurricanes.

Each storm rotates around a central eye, with a thick wall of clouds around the eye. And a six-sided wall of clouds surrounds the storm at the north pole. This hexagon hasn't changed much over the last four years -- the entire time that Cassini has been watching Saturn.

And you can watch Saturn, too. It looks like a bright golden star a little to the left of the Moon as they rise around 11 o'clock. It keeps company with the Moon as they climb high overhead during the wee hours of the morning.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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