(Jake Anderson) A stunning discovery has scientists baffled by the second-largest planet in the solar system. Saturn, a gas giant composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, contains a mysterious high-altitude hexagonal vortex in the upper atmosphere of its north pole. The new long-term study, facilitated by the international Cassini mission, reveals that this hexagon towers hundreds of miles into the stratosphere of the planet and is geometrically precise.
by Jake Anderson, September 7th, 2018
The Cassini mission first arrived at the Saturnian system in 2004. It spotted a warm, high-altitude vortex in the planet’s southern pole, but the winter conditions prevented a study of the northern pole. Scientists had previously studied a lower altitude hexagonal ‘structure,’ but it was considered unlikely that this would affect conditions higher in the atmosphere. Scientists were shocked to discover that a second vortex extends above the planet’s clouds.
“A single, towering hexagonal structure that stretches up through the atmosphere would be unlikely given that wind conditions change considerably with altitude,” a statement from the Cassini-Huygens team read.
“Waves like the hexagon should be unable to propagate upwards – they should remain trapped in the cloud-tops.”
Lead author of the study, Leigh Fletcher of the University of Leicester, U.K., expressed her surprise at the vortex:
“While we did expect to see a vortex of some kind at Saturn’s north pole as it grew warmer, its shape is really surprising…Either a hexagon has spawned spontaneously and identically at two different altitudes, one lower in the clouds and one high in the stratosphere, or the hexagon is in fact a towering structure spanning a vertical range of several hundred kilometres.”
The discovery could suggest a fundamental asymmetry between the planet’s poles, and unraveling the mystery will shed light on how energy is transported between atmospheric layers in gas giant planets.
However, further studies about the phenomenon will have to be conducted by a new NASA mission. Cassini was retired in 2017 when scientists deliberately sent the probe on a kamikaze plunge to prevent contaminating any of Saturn’s moons, which may contain sub-glacial life.
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