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Cassini’s Best Look Yet At Saturn’s Crazy Hexagon

Saturn hexagon

This colorful view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is the highest-resolution view of the unique six-sided jet stream at Saturn’s north pole known as “the hexagon.” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University)

Yes, I said hexagon. If you haven’t heard, our solar system’s second-largest planet has another curious feature besides its sprawling rings; it’s also in possession of an uncannily geometric six-sided jet stream encircling its north pole — at the heart of which lies a churning hurricane-like vortex over 1,800 miles wide. This hexagon has been known about since the days of Voyager, and now NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has presented us with the highest-resolution look yet at this odd atmospheric phenomenon.

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Saturn’s Stunning, Swirling Cyclone

Saturn’s north polar cyclone (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Oh man. It’s stuff like this that got me into space blogging in the first place.

Landing here on Earth last night, this is one of several new raw images from Cassini acquired yesterday (Nov. 27) showing the enormous cyclone of clouds swirling around Saturn’s geographic north pole. The angle of sunlight highlights the multilayered structure of the cyclone and surrounding cloud bands wonderfully… this is a roiling feature approximately 3-4,000 km across and in places appears to carve cloud channels hundreds of kilometers into Saturn’s atmosphere. Simply. Beautiful.

It’s been a while since we’ve gotten such a good look at Saturn’s north pole… over four years ago, I’d say, and in fact one of my very first blog posts here on LITD was of the hexagonal feature ringing Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Thanks to Cassini’s new orbital trajectory, which is taking it high over the ring plane and poles of Saturn, we have the opportunity to view the gas giant’s upper latitudes again.

In fact we even have a brand new look at the hexagon, which is still there, four years later:

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LITD Highlight: What The Hex?

I originally posted this article on February 20, 2009. I like the image a lot, and there’s a link to a cool animation of the hexagonal feature around Saturn’s north pole.

Saturn's Mysterious Hexagon

Saturn’s Mysterious Hexagon

As Saturn’s spring approaches, its north pole comes into view and reveals the curious six-sided geometric shape rotating in its uppermost latitudes. This image was taken by Cassini one month ago. (The image was black-and-white….I colored it myself using the hues found in Saturn’s atmosphere. Click to see the original photo.)

The hexagonal feature is a phenomenon caused by the high wind speeds encircling the pole (300+ mph) and the convective heat processes from deep within the atmosphere, combined with the rotation of the giant gas planet. The hexagon appears to be a deep trough within the high layers of clouds, a clear channel extending 40-50 miles down into the atmosphere. It maintains its geometric shape even while strong winds and storms circle around it…watch it in motion here, filmed in heat-sensitive infrared on October 30, 2006.

This curious feature will be studied further as more of the pole comes into sunlight as Saturn progresses into its spring season. (Saturn’s seasonal rotation takes 29 Earth years to complete, so there’s plenty of time for study.)

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

What The Hex?

 

Saturn's Mysterious Hexagon

Saturn's Mysterious Hexagon

As Saturn’s spring approaches, its north pole comes into view and reveals the curious six-sided geometric shape rotating in its uppermost latitudes. This image was taken by Cassini one month ago. (The image was black-and-white….I colored it myself using the hues found in Saturn’s atmosphere. Click to see the original photo.)

The hexagonal feature is a phenomenon caused by the high wind speeds encircling the pole (300+ mph) and the convective heat processes from deep within the atmosphere, combined with the rotation of the giant gas planet. The hexagon appears to be a deep trough within the high layers of clouds, a clear channel extending 40-50 miles down into the atmosphere. It maintains its geometric shape even while strong winds and storms circle around it…watch it in motion here, filmed in heat-sensitive infrared on October 30, 2006.

This curious feature will be studied further as more of the pole comes into sunlight as Saturn progresses into its spring season. (Saturn’s seasonal rotation takes 29 Earth years to complete, so there’s plenty of time for study.)

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

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