The fascinating and mysterious rings of Saturn

Image credit: Hubble

With its dazzling icy ring system, Saturn has been a subject of fascination since ancient times.

Even now, the sixth planet from the sun holds many mysteries, partly because its distance makes direct observation difficult and partly because this gas giant (which is several times the size of our planet) has a composition and atmosphere, mainly hydrogen and helium. , so shed some ideas on the creation of the solar system itself.

The mysteries
One of Saturn’s mysteries has to do with the massive hexagon-shaped storm at its north pole.

The six-sided vortex is an atmospheric phenomenon that has fascinated planetary scientists since its discovery in the 1980s by the US Voyager program and the subsequent visit in 2006 by the US-European Cassini-Huygens mission. The storm is about 20,000 miles in diameter and bordered by bands of winds that blow up to 300 miles per hour. A hurricane like this does not exist on any other known planet or moon.

Two of the many scientists turned interplanetary storm chasers working to uncover the secrets of this wonder are Jeremy Bloxham, Mallinckrodt’s geophysics professor, and research associate Rakesh K. Yadav, who works in Bloxham’s lab at the Department of Harvard Earth and Planetary Sciences.

“We see storms on Earth regularly and they are always spiraling, sometimes circular, but never something with hexagonal segments or edged polygons. That is really surprising and completely unexpected. [The question on Saturn is] how did such a large system form and how can such a large system remain unchanged on this large planet? ”Yadav said in a statement released by the university.

By creating a 3D simulation model of Saturn’s atmosphere, Yadev and Bloxham believe they are getting closer to an answer.

In their paper, the scientists say that the unnatural-looking hurricane occurs when atmospheric flows deep below Saturn create large and small vortices (also known as cyclones) that surround a larger horizontal jet stream that blows eastward near the North pole of the planet that also has a series of storms.

Smaller storms interact with the larger system, effectively pinching the eastern jet and confining it to the top of the planet as a result. The pinching process warps the stream into a hexagon.

“This jet is going round and round the planet, and it has to coexist with these localized [smaller] storms,” Yadav said.

He suggests thinking about it like this “let’s imagine we have a rubber band and we put a bunch of smaller rubber bands around it and then we just tighten everything from the outside. That center ring will compress a few inches into an odd shape with a number of edges. That is basically the physics of what is happening. We have these smaller storms and they are basically pinching the bigger storms in the polar region and since they have to coexist somehow they have to find a space to house basically each system.