Saturn is opposite the sun from Earth today (April 15, 2012). Good day to celebrate all that is cool about our solar system’s showcase planet – including the great Saturn storm of 2011. The storm took place in Saturn’s northern hemisphere and raged for most of 2011. It began as springtime arrived on the northern half of Saturn’s globe for the first time in nearly 30 years, in late 2010. At around the same time that northern spring on Saturn was beginning, Saturn was also rising into Earth’s predawn sky, returning for another season of observation by earthly astronomers. That’s when amateur astronomers first spotted the Saturn storm – in early December 2010. Shortly after that, the Cassini spacecraft – which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004 – began capturing amazing images of the storm.
The 2011 Saturn storm ultimately became so powerful that, at one point, it stretched around the entire planet Saturn, which, by the way, is the second-largest planet in our solar system and some 9.4 times larger in diameter than our little Earth. See the image at the bottom of this post to see the storm stretched around Saturn.
This rare storm on Saturn shot plumes of gas high into Saturn’s atmosphere for months. A storm of this size has been observed on Saturn only six times since 1876 and never since an orbiting spacecraft, such as the Cassini mission to Saturn, has been there to give us earthlings a ringside seat. Cassini gave us wonderful images of the storm, such as those below.
The false-color image above was taken by Cassini shortly after the storm formed, in late December 2010. Saturn is shown in the infrared, viewed through a combination of three filters. The white and blue areas are clouds high in Saturn’s atmosphere. Yellow/green are mid-level clouds. Red/orange are deeper material. The rings are edge-on right in the middle of this image, and you can see the shadow they cast on the planet.
Be sure to click to expand the montage of images above, which follow the progression of the storm throughout 2011 and speak for themselves.
No mention of Saturn’s great 2011 storm would be complete without the image above. The image is in true color. It was the Astronomy Picture of the Day for January 19, 2011. Image Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA; Color Composite: Jean-Luc Dauvergne
The image above is my favorite. It’s part of the montage above, but I pulled it out so you will notice it. Cassini captured this image on February 25, 2011, about 12 weeks after the storm began. By then, the storm had formed a tail that wrapped entirely around Saturn. This image shows the tail of the storm catching up to the storm’s head (the bright area). Some of the clouds moved south and got caught up in a current that flows to the east (to the right) relative to the storm head. This tail, which appears as slightly blue clouds south and west (left) of the storm head, can be seen encountering the storm head in this view.
Bottom line: Earth goes between the sun and Saturn on April 15, 2012. Good day to contemplate all that is wonderful about Saturn! Thanks to the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, we can enjoy amazing images of the great Saturn storm of 2011.