In high-resolution pictures and video, scientists see the hurricane's eye is about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide, 20 times larger than the average hurricane eye on Earth (5/29/13 UPDATE: A recent recalculation shows this Saturn hurricane eye is about 50 times the size of the average hurricane eye on Earth). Thin, bright clouds at the outer edge of the hurricane are traveling 340 mph (150 meters per second). The hurricane swirls inside a large, mysterious, six-sided weather pattern known as the hexagon.
"We did a double take when we saw this vortex because it looks so much like a hurricane on Earth," said Andrew Ingersoll, a Cassini imaging team member at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "But there it is at Saturn, on a much larger scale, and it is somehow getting by on the small amounts of water vapor in Saturn's hydrogen atmosphere."
Scientists will be studying the hurricane to gain insight into hurricanes on Earth, which feed off warm ocean water. Although there is no body of water close to these clouds high in Saturn's atmosphere, learning how these Saturnian storms use water vapor could tell scientists more about how terrestrial hurricanes are generated and sustained.
Both a terrestrial hurricane and Saturn's north polar vortex have a central eye with no clouds or very low clouds. Other similar features include high clouds forming an eye wall, other high clouds spiraling around the eye, and a counter-clockwise spin in the northern hemisphere.
"The polar hurricane has nowhere else to go, and that's likely why it's stuck at the pole," said Kunio Sayanagi, a Cassini imaging team associate at Hampton University in Hampton, Va.
Scientists believe the massive storm has been churning for years. When Cassini arrived in the Saturn system in 2004, Saturn's north pole was dark because the planet was in the middle of its north polar winter. During that time, the Cassini spacecraft's composite infrared spectrometer and visual and infrared mapping spectrometer detected a great vortex, but a visible-light view had to wait for the passing of the equinox in August 2009. Only then did sunlight begin flooding Saturn's northern hemisphere. The view required a change in the angle of Cassini's orbits around Saturn so the spacecraft could see the poles.
Cassini changes its orbital inclination for such an observing campaign only once every few years. Because the spacecraft uses flybys of Saturn's moon Titan to change the angle of its orbit, the inclined trajectories require attentive oversight from navigators. The path requires careful planning years in advance and sticking very precisely to the planned itinerary to ensure enough propellant is available for the spacecraft to reach future planned orbits and encounters.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team consists of scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
Images and two versions of a movie of the hurricane can be viewed online at: http://go.nasa.gov/17tmHzo .
Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington