Cassini images bizarre hexagon on Saturn
2007-03-29 0:00


Saturnís active north pole. More Article Images

An odd, six-sided, honeycomb-shaped feature circling the entire north pole of Saturn has captured the interest of scientists with the Cassini mission.

This atmospheric feature was already imaged by NASAís Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft over two decades ago. The fact that it has appeared in Cassini images indicates that it is a long-lived feature. A second hexagon, significantly darker than the brighter historical feature, is also visible in the Cassini pictures. The spacecraft's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) is the first instrument to capture the entire hexagon feature in one image.

ďThis is a very strange feature, lying in a precise geometric fashion with six nearly equally straight sides,Ē said Kevin Baines, atmospheric expert and member of Cassiniís visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) team at NASAís Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. ďWeíve never seen anything like this on any other planet. Indeed, Saturnís thick atmosphere where circularly-shaped waves and convective cells dominate is perhaps the last place youíd expect to see such a six-sided geometric figure, yet there it is.Ē

Saturnís strange hexagon. More Article Images

The hexagon is similar to Earthís polar vortex, which has winds blowing in a circular pattern around the polar region. On Saturn, the vortex has a hexagonal rather than circular shape. The hexagon is nearly 25 000 kilometres across. Nearly four Earths could fit inside it.

The new images taken in thermal-infrared light show the hexagon extends much deeper down into the atmosphere than previously expected, some 100 kilometres below the cloud tops. A system of clouds lies within the hexagon. The clouds appear to be whipping around the hexagon like cars on a racetrack.

ďItís amazing to see such striking differences on opposite ends of Saturnís poles,Ē said Bob Brown, team leader of the Cassini VIMS instrument, University of Arizona, Tucson. ďAt the south pole we have what appears to be a hurricane with a giant eye, and at the north pole of Saturn we have this geometric feature, which is completely different.Ē

See Spinning Saturn Animation
The Saturn north pole hexagon has not been visible to Cassiniís visual cameras, because itís winter in that area, so the hexagon is under the cover of the long polar night, which lasts about 15 years. The infrared mapping spectrometer can image Saturn in both daytime and nighttime conditions and see deep inside. It imaged the feature with thermal wavelengths near 5 microns (seven times the wavelength visible to the human eye) during a 12-day period beginning on 30 October 2006. As winter wanes over the next two years, the feature may become visible to the visual cameras.

ďThrough the use of different wavelengths, the VIMS instrument is able to probe Saturnís atmosphere at different depths,Ē says Angioletta Coradini, from the Istituto di Fisica dello Spazio Interplanetario by INAF (Italy), and member of the VIMS team. ďThanks to the VIMS measurements we can link together atmospheric structures Ė such as the hexagonal vortex Ė with the energetic balance of the planetís upper atmosphere,Ē she continued. ďWith this series of investigations Ė the very first ever performed at Saturn Ė we are obtaining vital information to understand the atmospheric dynamics of giant planets in general.Ē

Based on the new images and more information on the depth of the hexagonal feature on Saturn, scientists think it is not linked to Saturnís radio emissions or to auroral activity, as once contemplated, even though Saturnís northern aurora lies nearly overhead. So, there is still plenty to do for the scientists to solve the puzzle.

ďThis will be possible thanks to the exceptional capability of instruments of this kind in probing planetary atmospheres and following their evolution with time, in a true Ď3Dí way,Ē added Coradini. ďAs a comparison, it is a similar instrument (VIRTIS) sitting on board ESAís Venus Express, that is providing the most detailed view ever of Venusí double-eyed south-polar vortex on Venus.Ē

Saturnís north pole hexagon and aurora. More Article Images

Saturn's 'hexagon' appears to have remained fixed with the planetís rotation rate and axis since first glimpsed by Voyager 26 years ago. The actual rotation rate of Saturn is still uncertain. ďOnce we understand its dynamical nature, this long-lived, deep-seated polar hexagon may give us a clue to the true rotation rate of the deep atmosphere and perhaps the interior,Ē concluded Baines.

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