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Saturn at Opposition

April 26, 2013

The planet Saturn is best known for its beautiful rings - wispy bands of rock and ice that are unlike anything else in the solar system. Yet the planet’s wispy clouds are just as beautiful as the rings, and in some ways a lot more interesting.

Through its equator, Saturn is more than nine times Earth’s diameter. Yet it takes less than 11 hours for Saturn to spin on its axis. That stretches the clouds that top its atmosphere into globe-circling bands. They’re colored in subtle shades of yellow, tan, and white by water vapor, ammonia, sulfur, and other compounds.

At the poles, the clouds form hurricane-like vortexes that are big enough to swallow Earth. The one at the north pole forms a hexagon.

Giant storms also form at lower latitudes. Many of them are as big as continents. Unlike the storms on Earth, which are powered by the Sun, those on Saturn get their energy from inside the planet itself. Heat radiates outward, stirring up the upper atmosphere.

And sometimes, that heat stirs up storms that can wrap around the entire planet. These storms are brilliant white, so they really stand out against the golden hues of much of the rest of this giant planet.

Saturn is putting on its best showing of the year over the next few nights. It rises at sunset and remains in view all night. And it’s brightest for the year, too. Look for it low in the southeast as darkness falls, shining like a bright golden star. Tonight, it’s to the upper right of the Moon.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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