Snapshots reveal details of Saturn’s gigantic hurricane

Storm dwarfs anything on Earth

An enormous cyclone spinning around Saturn’s north pole puts to shame even Earth’s most devastating hurricanes. New snapshots reveal that the storm’s eye spans 2,000 kilometers, making it some 30 times larger than the average Earth hurricane eye. And with a speed of more than 500 kilometers per hour, the storm’s winds blow twice as fast as a Category 5 hurricane, NASA announced April 29.

A hurricane spins around Saturn’s north pole, as seen in this false-color image captured by the Cassini spacecraft. In this image, red clouds sit at a lower elevation than green ones. NASA, JPL-Caltech, SSI

Astronomers first detected the storm several years ago during Saturn’s winter, when the north pole was shrouded in darkness (SN: 11/8/08, p. 9). When the planet’s spring sprung in 2009 and sunlight returned, NASA scientists repositioned the orbit of the Cassini spacecraft, which has watched over Saturn since 2004. It took several years before the probe was finally in the place to image the cyclone. 

Scientists aren’t sure what powers the jumbo hurricane. On Earth, warm ocean water propels such storms. With no ocean on Saturn, minute amounts of water vapor in the planet’s atmosphere may fuel the hurricane, NASA scientists say.

Erin Wayman is the managing editor for print and longform content at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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