Back in 2008, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft beamed back close-up images of the “hotspots” astronomers had previously observed on Saturn’s poles and the images harvested revealed the existence of massive cyclones, each as wide as the Earth.
In light of the discovery, scientists were led to question how such massive cyclones could exist on a planet with no moisture providing water on its surface — as on Earth, the combination of moisture and heat is necessary for the creation of cyclones.
But now scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) think they may have discovered the answer to Saturn’s immense cyclones: The accumulation of angular momentum over time as a result of a series of small, short-lived thunderstorms which ultimately lead to the creation of long-lasting cyclones at the poles, or as MIT’s Jennifer Chu writes in a news release:
Over time, small, short-lived thunderstorms across the planet may build up angular momentum, or spin, within the atmosphere — ultimately stirring up a massive and long-lasting vortex at the poles.
In order to reach this conclusion, the researchers developed what MIT’s news office reported to be a “simple model” of the distant planet’s atmosphere which was used to simulate the effect of the formation of multiple small thunderstorms across the planet over time.
In the study, which was published June 15, 2015 in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers observed the accumulation of air at the poles, as each thunderstorm essentially pulled air towards the poles. As a result of the build up, the small isolated storms were able to accumulate enough energy to produce a significantly larger, longer-lasting cyclone.
Morgan O’Neill, the study’s lead author and a former PhD student at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), indicated that the model might eventually find use as a tool used in the assessment of atmospheric conditions on planets outside the solar system.
In other news, astronomers recently discovered an “extremely rare” quadruple quasar and the International Space Station began the process of reconfiguring to accept commercial spacecraft such as Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon.