Moon and Saturn

StarDate: January 24, 2014

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The planet Saturn looks tranquil enough. Clouds form wide stripes that encircle the entire planet. They’re colored in subtle shades of yellow and tan.

Yet if you were to plunge into those clouds, you’d find a world that can be far more violent than Earth is, with giant storms, powerful lightning, and fierce winds.

Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere is stirred up by energy from the Sun, energy from deep within the planet itself, and the planet’s high-speed rotation.

Saturn spins on its axis once every 10-and-a-half hours. That makes the planet bulge out at the equator. It also stretches the clouds into those globe-encircling bands. And it creates powerful winds — the jet stream at the equator blows at 1100 miles per hour.

Saturn is so far from the Sun that is receives fairly little solar heat. So most of the energy that drives Saturn’s weather comes from deep inside the planet itself. As the heat makes its way to the surface, it drives thunderstorms that can be as big as Earth, with lightning bolts thousands of times more powerful than anything on our planet.

The heat also powers super-storms that pop up every few years or decades. These storms can eventually encircle the entire planet and whirl through its turbulent atmosphere for many months.

Saturn is in great view at first light tomorrow. It looks like a bright star right next to the Moon — colored golden by its beautiful but violent atmosphere.

 

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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

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