The long-standing mystery of why Saturn seethes with enormous storms every 30 years may have been solved by scientists working with data from NASA’s Cassini mission. The tempests, which can grow into bright bands that encircle the entire planet, are on a natural timer that is reset by each subsequent storm, the researchers report.
In 140 years of telescope observations, great storms have erupted on Saturn six times. Cassini and observers on Earth tracked the most recent of these storms from December 2010 to August 2011. During that time, the storm exploded through the clouds, eventually winding its way around Saturn.
In a paper published online on April 12 in the journal Nature Geoscience, scientists describe the effect they believe is responsible for the periodic outbursts. The basic idea is that water vapor is heavier than the hydrogen and helium that make up the bulk of Saturn’s atmosphere, so once each giant storm dumps its huge mass of rain, the air within the clouds is left lighter than the atmosphere below. For a time, this situation shuts off the process of convection — in which warm, moist air rises, and cool, dense air sinks — that creates new clouds and storms.
“For decades after one of these storms, the warm air in Saturn’s deep atmosphere is too wet, and too dense, to rise,” said Cheng Li, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who led the study. “The air above has to cool off, radiating its heat to space, before its density is greater than that of the hot, wet air below. This cooling process takes about 30 years, and then come the storms.”