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Published:October 27th, 2012 16:45 EST
Saturn's Mystery Storm Leaves NASA Scientists Wanting to Learn More

Saturn's Mystery Storm Leaves NASA Scientists Wanting to Learn More

By Ron G Anselm

Out of the ordinary storms in space especially when they occur on planets such as Saturn are something as rare as ending Game Seven of the World Series with a triple play. We rarely hear about them occurring but when out of the ordinary, things do happen it sends scientists scurrying like little mice in a maze trying to find out everything they can, the what, how and why of the questions that baffle science?

Storms do occur in space and on planets but the storm that the NASA Cassini Spacecraft recently tracked that took place on Saturn was a little out of the ordinary. The data collected by the Cassini spacecraft revealed signs of record-setting disturbances in Saturn`s upper atmosphere long after the storm had abated. Cassini also picked up data that showed the storm was more forceful than what scientists previously thought to be the case.

The data collected from Cassini about the storm on Saturn is at the moment being studied and analyzed to try to start the first part of the puzzle of shaping the hypothesis of the "what" question of science. The what part in this case involves, what were the scientific reasons for a storm of this type, size and caliber to happen on Saturn in the first place? Many storms in the past have occurred in Saturn`s upper atmosphere but this storm was not your normal storm for Saturn. The first piece of data that scientists are scratching their heads over is what caused the extreme surge in temperature in Saturn`s upper atmosphere that occurred during this storm.

The infrared (CIRS) instrument on Cassini revealed the powerful discharge that occurs in most storms sent the temperature in Saturn`s upper atmosphere sky rocketing to over 150 degrees Fahrenheit (83 kelvins) above the normal temperature. So, scientists are trying to find out why that happened because it is not a normal occurrence for storms in Saturn`s upper atmosphere to behave this way.

A temperature surge like this that happened during this storm is really very extreme. Brigette Hesman who is the study`s lead author and a University of Maryland scientist working  at the Goddard Space Center near Laurel, Maryland summed this up by saying, "This temperature spike is so extreme it`s almost unbelievable, especially in this part of Saturn`s atmosphere, which typically is very stable. To get a temperature change of the same scale on Earth, you`d be going from the depths of winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the height of summer in the Mojave Desert." (Hesman, B.)

So, what were the scientific reasons that caused the extreme surge of temperature to happen in the first place? The mystery is ongoing. If and when cientists can find out why the temperature spiked so high during this storm that would link the mystery puzzle to the next question as to how did this storm occur in this fashion?

Scientists are still studying how this storm occurred and why it was so powerful and large but one piece of the data being analyzed reveals that the Cassini Spacecraft picked-up that there was a huge increase in the amount of ethylene gas during the storm and the origin of which is still a mystery. Ethylene is an odorless, colorless gas, isn`t typically observed on Saturn. On Earth, it is created by natural and man-made sources. (nasa.com)

Scientists are trying to unlock the secret behind the huge increase in the amount of Ethylene gas, part of the puzzle and where it`s source coming from? It also adds to the mystery of what part of the puzzle it is and how it links the how piece together and now we have the why did this type of storm occur on Saturn since this storm was not one of the usual storms that occur once a year on the ring planet. Saturn normally has large storms occur once a year which equates to about every thirty years in Earth`s time.

Scientists cannot really pinpoint why this type of storm happened on Saturn because storms in space are different from storms occurring on Earth.  Scientists are analyzing data that reveal red flags such as the surge in extreme temperature and the detection of Ethylene gas not normally found on Saturn.  Scientists hope to gain new knowledge from the study of this phenemenon by piecing the complete science puzzle together, forming their hypothesis . This is what makes science so interesting and fun.

This storm also marks a milestone in NASA history because it was the first storm of its kind to be studied by a spacecraft that was orbiting in and around the planet.  Also, it was the first of its kind to be observed at thermal infrared wavelengths. Observing the storm through infrared wavelengths gave scientists the option to take the temperature of Saturn`s atmosphere and track other out of the ordinary occurrences that are invisible to the naked eye.

Temperature measurements taken by NASA revealed two unusual beacons of warmer-than-normal air shining brightly in the stratosphere. These indicated a massive release of energy into the atmosphere. After the visible signs of the storm started to fade, CIRS data revealed the two beacons had merged. The temperature of this combined air mass shot up to more than minus 64 degrees Fahrenheit (above 220kelvins) (nasa.com)

At the same time, NASA also revealed the huge spike in ethylene gas which peaked to over one-hundred times more ethylene than scientists thought could be possible to occur on Saturn. Michael Flasar of NASA said, "We`ve really never been able to see ethylene on Saturn before, so this was a complete surprise." (Flasar, M.)

NASA also revealed how the two stratospheric beacons merged which became the largest and hottest stratospheric vortex ever detected to happen in our solar system when the temperature spiked in the atmosphere of Saturn. NASA said it was larger than the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. On top of that there were reports of a powerful collar of clockwise winds which encompassed an out of the ordinary soup of gasses which hovered around Saturn`s vortex.

Scott Edgington who is Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA`s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California stated, "These studies will give us new insight into some of the photochemical processes at work in the stratospheres of Saturn, other giants in our solar system, and beyond." (Edgington, S.)

As NASA continues to study this out of the ordinary storm they are discovering things they never knew existed in the once of year large storms that occur on Saturn. And as they find out more about it will lead to discovering more about other giants in our solar system.  Only then will they be able to form a hypothesis and answer the what, how, and why questions that so seemingly baffle scientists.  However, it drives them to be extremely motivated to find out the answers to these three little ordinary science questions.

Reference

NASA SPACECRAFT SEES HUGE BURP AT SATURN AFTER LARGE STORM, (http://www.nasa.gov/cassini).

Retrieved 2012.

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Photo Credit: Nasa.gov