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Saturn's megastorms are larger than the Earth and last for hundreds of years

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the solar system’s largest storm spanning 10,000 miles across, has long been an iconic feature of the gas giant. However, recent research indicates that Saturn, a planet often perceived as more subdued than its vibrant counterpart, is not without its own atmospheric marvels and megastorms.

A new study jointly led by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has uncovered that Saturn also experiences colossal megastorms. These tempests, while infrequent, occurring every two to three decades, have long-lasting effects that reverberate deep within the planet’s atmosphere, persisting for centuries.

Studying megastorms on Saturn

A key method in this discovery was the analysis of Saturn’s radio emissions, which stem from beneath the planet’s surface. The researchers found unexpected disturbances in ammonia gas distribution, with these disruptions linked to past megastorms in the northern hemisphere.

Describing the sheer magnitude and mystery of these storms, lead author Cheng Li remarked, “Understanding the mechanisms of the largest storms in the solar system puts the theory of hurricanes into a broader cosmic context, challenging our current knowledge and pushing the boundaries of terrestrial meteorology.”

The team utilized the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico, a state-of-the-art facility that captures radio emissions from deep within gas giants. Imke de Pater is a veteran researcher in the study of gas giants. He noted, “At radio wavelengths, we probe below the visible cloud layers on giant planets…Radio observations help characterize dynamical, physical and chemical processes including heat transport, cloud formation and convection in the atmospheres of giant planets on both global and local scales.”

What the researchers learned

The study, now available in the journal Science Advances, documented an intriguing find by de Pater, Li, and UC Berkeley graduate student Chris Moeckel. They observed anomalies in the concentration of ammonia gas within Saturn’s atmosphere.

At midaltitudes, just beneath the uppermost ammonia-ice cloud layer, there’s a noticeable dip in ammonia concentration. However, deeper in the atmosphere, 100 to 200 kilometers down, there’s a spike.

This change in ammonia distribution, the team postulates, stems from precipitation and reevaporation processes. Impressively, this atmospheric shift, once instigated by a megastorm, can persist for several centuries.

But while Jupiter and Saturn are both primarily composed of hydrogen gas, their atmospheric behaviors differ significantly. Jupiter’s tropospheric anomalies relate to its distinct zones and belts and are not storm-induced like Saturn’s.

This stark contrast between the two neighboring gas giants is reshaping scientists’ understanding of megastorm genesis on both these planets and potentially others in distant galaxies. As we continue our quest to explore and understand exoplanets, these findings could reshape how we detect and study megastorms beyond our solar system.

More about Saturn

Saturn, the sixth planet from the Sun, captivates the imagination of stargazers and scientists alike. With its striking ring system and colossal size, Saturn stands as a mesmerizing jewel of our solar system. Let’s delve deeper into this fascinating gas giant.

Physical characteristics

Saturn claims the title of the second-largest planet in our solar system, only dwarfed by Jupiter. It boasts a diameter of about 74,600 miles (120,000 kilometers). Interestingly, the planet consists mostly of hydrogen and helium, giving it its characteristic gas giant classification.

Despite its massive size, Saturn spins rapidly on its axis, completing a day in just about 10.7 hours. However, its journey around the Sun takes considerably longer — about 29.5 Earth years to complete a full orbit.

The iconic rings

No discussion of Saturn can skip its iconic rings. These dazzling structures, primarily made of ice particles with a smattering of rocky debris, surround the planet and span up to 282,000 kilometers from its center. They differentiate into several bands, named alphabetically in the order of their discovery.

While they look solid from afar, the rings consist of individual particles ranging from tiny, dust-sized icy grains to massive boulders spanning several meters across. Scientists believe that these rings formed from shattered remnants of moons, asteroids, or comets.

Saturn’s moons

Beyond its rings, Saturn plays host to an impressive collection of moons — over 145 known satellites. The largest, Titan, even surpasses Mercury in size. Titan holds a thick atmosphere, making it a point of interest for scientists due to its potential for prebiotic life.

The atmosphere and climate

Dive into Saturn’s atmosphere, and you’ll find it teeming with clouds of ammonia and methane. The planet showcases a banded appearance, much like Jupiter, because of its wind patterns and cloud formations. Wind speeds on Saturn can reach up to 1,800 kilometers per hour, especially around its equator.

Mysterious megastorms periodically emerge on Saturn. They appear roughly every 30 years and can span tens of thousands of kilometers. Recent research even suggests that these storms may have lasting impacts on Saturn’s atmosphere.

Exploration of Saturn

Saturn has piqued human interest for centuries. The Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, and Voyager 2 missions in the 20th century gave us initial close-up views.

However, it was the Cassini-Huygens mission, launched in 1997, that provided the most detailed examination of the planet, its rings, and its moons. Cassini spent 13 years orbiting Saturn, offering unprecedented insights before making its deliberate plunge into the planet in 2017.

Saturn, with its golden glow, stunning rings, and collection of moons, remains a marvel in our night sky. As we continue our explorations, each discovery about this gas giant only adds to its allure and deepens the mysteries waiting to be uncovered.

Whether you’re a seasoned astronomer or a casual stargazer, Saturn continues to beckon, promising a blend of beauty and cosmic intrigue.

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