Saturn Storm: Cassini Spacecraft Tracked Largest Vortex Seen in Solar System [VIDEO]

By IScience Times Reporter on October 25, 2012 6:31 PM EDT

Saturn
Saturn (Photo: Wikipedia)

A Saturn storm in 2010 created record-setting changes in the planet's upper atmosphere months after apparent signs of the storm had subsided, new data released by NASA shows.

"It's a very exciting thing ... a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Brigette Hesman, a scientist at University of Maryland and the Goddard Spaceflight Center, said on Thursday.

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The data - garnered from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, which has studied Saturn since arriving there in 2004 - revealed that the temperature of the planet spiked to 150 degrees Fahrenheit following a bright-white storm that hit Saturn's northern hemisphere in December 2010.

"The reason we call it the burp is, essentially, the storm erupted from below and all this energy moved into the stratosphere," she continued.

NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., also picked up on a large growth in ethylene gas. Goddard scientists describe the effects in the upcoming Nov. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. "This temperature spike is so extreme it's almost unbelievable, especially in this part of Saturn's atmosphere, which typically is very stable," Hesman, who is the author of the study explained. "To get a temperature change of the same scale on Earth, you'd be going from the depths of winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the height of summer in the Mojave Desert."

First seen by Cassini on Dec. 5, 2010, the storm got so expansive that it would have reportedly covered most of North America. Because storms of this scale generally only occur every 30 years, this was the first of its kind to be studied by a spacecraft orbiting around the planet.

The scale of the storm resulted in an enormous release of energy into the atmosphere. According to Hesman, the huge increase was 100 times more ethylene than scientists thought possible.

"These studies will give us new insight into some of the photochemical processes at work in the stratospheres of Saturn, other giants in our solar system, and beyond," said Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency.

Watch video coverage from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft here...

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