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Moon and Saturn

January 5, 2013

It certainly wasn’t the most destructive storm of last year’s hurricane season, but it was the most tenacious. Nadine meandered across the eastern Atlantic Ocean for more than three weeks, waxing and waning in strength and eventually looping back on itself before finally vanishing. It was one of the longest major storms on record.

On the solar system’s giant outer planets, though, storms rage not for weeks, but for months or even years.

An example is a storm that flared to life more than two years ago in the northern hemisphere of Saturn. Within weeks, it had wrapped all the way around the planet. And that’s quite a distance, because Saturn is more than nine times Earth’s diameter.

The storm remained visible for months. Even after it vanished from view, though, it was still going. Instruments aboard the Cassini spacecraft recorded a giant “hotspot” where the storm had been seen. Temperatures in this region were up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the surrounding clouds. The hotspot contained large amounts of ethylene and acetylene — hydrocarbons that probably formed through chemical reactions in Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere. The hotspot — and the giant storm — finally faded last year.

Saturn itself is in good view early tomorrow. It’s to the left of the Moon at first light, and looks like a bright golden star. It’s a world where giant storms are common — storms that keep on going even after they vanish from view.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012

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