Researchers Might Finally Understand Saturn’s Massive Hexagonal Storm


Saturn seems like a quiet gas giant with impressive rings, going about its orbit, undisturbed. At least, that’s how it looks from a distance. If we get closer, as Cassini did, things are quite different. 

A fierce hexagon-shaped storm has been raving Saturn’s north pole for almost four decades (Voyager found it in 1981). And even if Cassini succeeded in getting closer, details on Saturn’s hexagon have been scarce.

A recent atmospheric model tested in the lab, indicates now how the storm goes very deep, possibly thousands of kilometers. This discovery could help to clarify why the storm is still a relatively constant feature. Here are the latest details.

Could Saturn’s Hexagonal Storm Be Explained?

Previously, direct observations and other measurements have offered two leading hypotheses as to why Saturn’s hexagonal storm is happening. The first suggests that it might have formed from lightweight, alternating streams in the gas giant’s atmosphere, hundreds of kilometers deep. The pressure there is almost 10 bars, and the gas is more violent. 

The other hypothesis indicates that it might be more profound rooted, resulting from deep zonal streams spreading thousand of kilometers down. The pressure is approximately tens of thousands of times higher, and Saturn’s topography and rotation might be stirring up a rage. 

The recent investigation, however, might shed some light on the Saturn’s hexagon situation. A team of researchers from the Harvard University made a 3D model that indicates how deep thermal convection in the outer layers of gas giants can directly give rise to massive polar cyclones, a high-latitude eastward jet pattern, and wild alternating zonal winds. 

Those zonal jets are both quantitatively and qualitatively similar to what has been seen on Saturn. The team explained: “The analysis of the simulation suggests that self-organized turbulence in the form of giant vortices pinches the eastward jet, forming polygonal shapes; a similar mechanism is responsible for exciting Saturn’s hexagonal flow pattern.”

In the simulations, a big cyclone arose, too, centered on the north pole, while lots of smaller storms followed a mighty eastward jet slightly north of the equator. Researchers still need to incorporate more atmospheric data from Saturn. This time around, they seem like they might be on the right track. 

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