There’s one big difference between Earth and Saturn—OK, there are a lot of big differences between Earth and Saturn, including size, chemistry, temperature, distance from the sun and number of moons (one for Earth, up to 62 for Saturn). But the difference that may be most important concerns their atmospheres: Earth has one, Saturn essentially is one, part of the solar system’s quartet of gas giants that also includes Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.
With a vastly larger atmosphere than Earth’s, Saturn also has vastly larger storms—and none is as impressive as the huge cyclones that spin at its north pole, each as big around as the entire Earth, with winds that whip at 300 mph (483 k/h). The storms, first photographed by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, have always been a mystery. But now, a paper published in Nature Geoscience by a team of researchers headed by planetary scientist Morgan O’Neill of MIT may explain things.
One thing O’Neill and her colleagues knew was that understanding cyclones on Earth would provide only limited help in understanding them on Saturn. The Earthly storms can’t form without a fixed surface beneath them—especially a wet, fixed surface, which provides the friction that allows winds to drag and converge and the warm water that serves as the storms’ rocket fuel.
To understand how things work on Saturn, the researchers had to develop a computer model that recreated the planet’s gassier, drier, deeper and more turbulent atmosphere. They then ran hundreds of simulations over the course of days to try to see how cyclones could form at all and why they would converge into one super storm at the top of the planet. The computer delivered the goods.
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SOURCE: TIME, Jeffrey Kluger