hurricane on saturn

September 15

This one is technically not yet history, because at the time of posting, the little craft has about half an hour left to go.  That said, let’s proceed.

In 2017, NASA’s Cassini space probe ended its twenty-year mission at Saturn.  After a nearly-seven-year-long journey there, it orbited the ringed planet for 13 years and just over two months, gathering copious amounts of information about the planet, said rings, and many of its moons.  It landed an ESA probe called Huygens on Titan, the first-ever soft landing in the outer Solar System.  It discovered lakes, seas, and rivers of methane on Titan, geysers of water erupting from Enceladus (and passed within 50 miles of that moon’s surface), and found gigantic, raging hurricanes at both of Saturn’s poles.  

And the images it returned are beautiful enough to make you weep.

On this day in 2017, with the fuel for Cassini’s directional thrusters running low, the probe was de-orbited into the Saturnian atmosphere to prevent any possibility of any contamination of possible biotic environments on Titan or Enceladus.  The remaining thruster fuel was used to keep the radio dish pointed towards Earth so the probe could transmit information about the upper atmosphere of Saturn while it was burning up due to atmospheric friction.

This is us at our best.  We spent no small amount of money on a nuclear-powered robot, launched it into space, sent it a billion miles away, and worked with it for two decades just to learn about another planet.  And when the repeatedly-extended missions were through, we made the little craft sacrifice itself like a samurai, performing its duty as long as it could while it became a shooting star in the Saturnian sky.

Rhea occulting Saturn

Water geysers on Enceladus

Strange Iapetus

Look at this gorgeousness

A gigantic motherfucking storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere

Tethys

This image is from the surface of a moon of a planet at least 746 million miles away.  Sweet lord

Mimas

Vertical structures in the rings.  Holy shit

Titan and Dione occulting Saturn, rings visible

Little Daphnis making gravitational ripples in the rings

That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s all of us that ever lived.

Saturn, backlit

A polar vortex on the gas giant

Icy Enceladus

(All images from NASA/JPL)

Planets: As Seen by Voyager

The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune before starting their journey toward interstellar space. Here you’ll find some of those images, including “The Pale Blue Dot” – famously described by Carl Sagan – and what are still the only up-close images of Uranus and Neptune.

These twin spacecraft took some of the very first close-up images of these planets and paved the way for future planetary missions to return, like the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter, Cassini at Saturn and New Horizons at Pluto.

Jupiter

Photography of Jupiter began in January 1979, when images of the brightly banded planet already exceeded the best taken from Earth. They took more than 33,000 pictures of Jupiter and its five major satellites. 

Findings:

  • Erupting volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, which has 100 times the volcanic activity of Earth. 
  • Better understanding of important physical, geological, and atmospheric processes happening in the planet, its satellites and magnetosphere.
  • Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere with dozens of interacting hurricane-like storm systems.

Saturn

The Saturn encounters occurred nine months apart, in November 1980 and August 1981. The two encounters increased our knowledge and altered our understanding of Saturn. The extended, close-range observations provided high-resolution data far different from the picture assembled during centuries of Earth-based studies.

Findings:

  • Saturn’s atmosphere is almost entirely hydrogen and helium.
  • Subdued contrasts and color differences on Saturn could be a result of more horizontal mixing or less production of localized colors than in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
  • An indication of an ocean beneath the cracked, icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. 
  • Winds blow at high speeds in Saturn. Near the equator, the Voyagers measured winds about 1,100 miles an hour.

Uranus

The Voyager 2 spacecraft flew closely past distant Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun. At its closest, the spacecraft came within 50,600 miles of Uranus’s cloud tops on Jan. 24, 1986. Voyager 2 radioed thousands of images and voluminous amounts of other scientific data on the planet, its moons, rings, atmosphere, interior and the magnetic environment surrounding Uranus.

Findings:

  • Revealed complex surfaces indicative of varying geologic pasts.
  • Detected 11 previously unseen moons.
  • Uncovered the fine detail of the previously known rings and two newly detected rings.
  • Showed that the planet’s rate of rotation is 17 hours, 14 minutes.
  • Found that the planet’s magnetic field is both large and unusual.
  • Determined that the temperature of the equatorial region, which receives less sunlight over a Uranian year, is nevertheless about the same as that at the poles.

Neptune

Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe the planet Neptune in the summer of 1989. Passing about 3,000 miles above Neptune’s north pole, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to any planet since leaving Earth 12 years ago. Five hours later, Voyager 2 passed about 25,000 miles from Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, the last solid body the spacecraft had the opportunity to study.

Findings: 

  • Discovered Neptune’s Great Dark Spot
  • Found that the planet has strong winds, around 1,000 miles per hour
  • Saw geysers erupting from the polar cap on Neptune’s moon Triton at -390 degrees Fahrenheit

Solar System Portrait

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed ‘Pale Blue Dot’, is a part of the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. 

The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic.

From Voyager’s great distance, Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” - Carl Sagan

Both spacecraft will continue to study ultraviolet sources among the stars, and their fields and particles detectors will continue to search for the boundary between the Sun’s influence and interstellar space. The radioisotope power systems will likely provide enough power for science to continue through 2025, and possibly support engineering data return through the mid-2030s. After that, the two Voyagers will continue to orbit the center of the Milky Way.

Learn more about the Voyager spacecraft HERE.

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A tempestade hexagonal de Saturno, conhecida como ‘o hexágono’. O olho do furacão central tem é 50 vezes maior que um furacão médio na Terra. A mancha branca maior tem 3.500 km de diâmetro.
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Saturn’s hexagonal storm known as 'the hexagon’. The eye of the hurricane at the center is 50 times larger than an average hurricane at Earth. The whitish spot is 2.200 miles wide.
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Credit: Nasa/Cassini
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the Cassini spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera recorded this stunning image of the vortex at the ringed planet’s north pole. The false color, near-infrared image results in red hues for low clouds and green for high ones, causing the north-polar hurricane to take on the appearance of a rose. Enormous by terrestrial hurricane standards, this storm’s eye is about 2,000 kilometers wide, with clouds at the outer edge traveling at over 500 kilometers per hour. The north pole Saturn hurricane swirls inside the large, six-sided weather pattern known as the hexagon. Of course, in 2006 Cassini also imaged the hurricane at Saturn’s south pole.

 Acquiring its first sunlit views of far northern Saturn late last year, the Cassini spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera recorded this stunning image of the vortex at the ringed planet’s north pole. The false color, near-infrared image results in red hues for low clouds and green for high ones, causing the north-polar hurricane to take on the appearance of a rose. Enormous by terrestrial hurricane standards, this storm’s eye is about 2,000 kilometers wide, with clouds at the outer edge traveling at over 500 kilometers per hour. The north pole Saturn hurricane swirls inside the large, six-sided weather pattern known as the hexagon. 

Image Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA