A hexagon on the ringed planet

Something has put the hex on Saturn. NASA scientists are puzzled by a giant, hexagon-shaped feature that hovers above Saturn’s entire north pole. The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft first spotted the hexagon more than 2 decades ago. New infrared images taken by the Cassini spacecraft show that the feature has persisted and that a second, darker hexagon surrounds the brighter, previously recorded one.

GEOMETRY PUZZLE. A mysterious hexagonal feature circles Saturn’s north pole. JPL/NASA

“We’ve never seen anything like this on any other planet,” says Cassini scientist Kevin Baines of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Saturn’s thick, swirling atmosphere, with its circular-flow patterns, wouldn’t seem the place to find a nearly perfect six-sided figure, he notes. Indeed, the north pole hexagon contrasts sharply with a hurricane raging at Saturn’s south pole and resembling a giant eye.

The winds within the hexagon may be similar to Earth’s polar vortices, which occur intermittently as winds blow in circles around the poles. However, with a diameter of nearly 25,000 kilometers, the hexagon could fit about four Earths inside it. NASA released the images on March 27.

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