NASA today announced that the aftermath of a rare massive storm on Saturn has caused “record-setting disturbances” in the planet’s upper atmosphere. The disturbances are now coming long after visible signs of the storm, which were first detected in December 2010, have abated.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft (which just celebrated its birthday by finding a “hot cross bun” on Titan) detected a discharge from Saturn that raised the temperature in Saturn’s stratosphere to 150 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. At the same time, researchers at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center detected a “huge” increase in ethylene gas, which “isn’t typically observed on Saturn.” A study covering the findings will be published in the November 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,” said Brigette Hesman, the study’s lead author and an astronomer at the University of Maryland. “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.”
Hesman stated that the ethylene spike peaked with “100 times more of the gas than scientists thought possible for Saturn.” The origin of the gas remains a mystery, though researchers have ruled out a deep-atmosphere reservoir of the gas.
This is the first time a large storm on Saturn has been observed by an orbiting spacecraft, and the first one that has been measured at infrared wavelengths, using Cassini’s infrared spectrometer. NASA stated that the storm grew large enough to blanket North America north-to-south and wrap around the Earth “many times.” Such giant storms occur on Saturn about every 30 Earth years, or a little over one Saturn Year.