Huge Saturn Vortex: Cassini Probe Captures Swirling Storm [PHOTOS]

By Mo Mozuch on November 29, 2012 1:29 PM EST

A huge Saturn vortex has been photographed by NASA's Cassini space probe in it's most recent trip over the north pole of the famous ringed planet. The huge Saturn vortex is basically a gigantic hurricane that hovers over the planet's poles (another Saturn vortex was observed on the planet's south pole a few years ago.) Here are the stunning photos:

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The first photo of the huge Saturn vortex photographed by Cassini.
Another photo of the vortex.
Another photo of the vortex.
"Is that a vortex on your pole, or are you just happy to see me?"

The hexagonal cloud vortex on Saturn was first discovered by the Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s, and has been observed more closely by Cassini during its now-eight-year-old voyage. The huge Saturn vortex is estimated to be 15,000 miles across, roughly 300 times the size of recent mega storm Hurricane Sandy.

"Cassini's recent excursion into inclined orbits has given mission scientists a vertigo-inducing view of Saturn's polar regions, and what to our wondering eyes has just appeared: roiling storm clouds and a swirling vortex at the center of Saturn's famed northern polar hexagon," Cassini scientists wrote in an online update.

"Eight and a half years into our history-making expedition around the ringed planet and we are still astounded by the seemingly endless parade of new planetary phenomena," the mission scientists wrote.

The photos of the huge Saturn vortex are just the latest information delivered by Cassini, which has made monumental discoveries about Saturn and her moons, including the presence of hydrocarbon lakes on Titan and water geysers on Enceladus.

The Enceladus discovery could be the first step in what could arguably be the biggest discovery in the history of mankind: life on another planet.

One NASA scientist, after observing data gathered by Cassini, said Enceladus "could be snowing microbes" across its surface because of the presence of liquid salt water that gets blasted into space, only to freeze and drift across the surface like snow.

"It just about ticks every box you have when it comes to looking for life on another world," NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay told The Guardian. "It has got liquid water, organic material and a source of heat. It is hard to think of anything more enticing short of receiving a radio signal from aliens on Enceladus telling us to come and get them."

In 2011, a meeting at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. called for more support for a mission to Enceladus.  McKay attended the meeting and later told Nature that "there is no other environment in the Solar System" that comes close to matching Enceladus for the potential for life.

Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist for NASA, believes that the type of biology found on Enceladus would be similar to those found deep within the Earth's subterranean volcanic rocks, where microorganisms live off of hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The geysers on Enceladus are what make it especially promising for study, she says, because unlike similar missions that involve a spacecraft touching down on a surface and collecting samples, an Enceladus probe could just fly through the vapors being blasted into space.

"It's the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search," she said, adding, "it sounds crazy but it could be snowing microbes on the surface of this little world."

Snowing microbes? Huge Saturn Vortex photos? Not a bad track record for a space probe. It's certainly a more inspiring story than the story of NASA's Climate Orbiter, a $125 million spacecraft that crashed because engineers failed to grasp the metric system.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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