December 21, 1994
Photo No: H94-53
Hubble Observes a New Saturn Storm
This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of the ringed planet Saturn
shows a rare storm that appears as a white arrowhead-shaped feature
near the planet's equator. The storm is generated by an upwelling of
warmer air, similar to a terrestrial thunderhead. The east-west extent of
this storm is equal to the diameter of the Earth (about 7,900 miles).
Hubble provides new details about the effects of Saturn's prevailing
winds on the storm. The new image shows that the storm's motion
and size have changed little since its discovery in September, 1994.
The storm was imaged with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2
(WFPC2) in the wide field mode on December 1, 1994, when Saturn
was 904 million miles from the Earth. The picture is a composite of
images taken through different color filters within a 6 minute interval
to create a "true-color" rendition of the planet. The blue fringe
on the right limb of the planet is an artifact of image processing
used to compensate for the rotation of the planet between exposures.
The Hubble images are sharp enough to reveal that Saturn's prevailing
winds shape a dark "wedge" that eats into the western (left) side of the
bright central cloud. The planet's strongest eastward winds (clocked at
1,000 miles per hour from analysis of Voyager spacecraft images taken in
1980-81) are at the latitude of the wedge.
To the north of this arrowhead-shaped feature, the winds decrease so
that the storm center is moving eastward relative to the local flow. The
clouds expanding north of the storm are swept westward by the winds
at higher latitudes. The strong winds near the latitude of the dark
wedge blow over the northern part of the storm, creating a secondary
disturbance that generates the faint white clouds to the east (right) of
the storm center.
The storm's white clouds are ammonia ice crystals that form when
an upward flow of warmer gases shoves its way through Saturn's
frigid cloud tops. This current storm is larger than the white clouds
associated with minor storms that have been reported more frequently
as bright cloud features.
Hubble observed a similar, though larger, storm in September 1990,
which was one of three major Saturn storms seen over the past two
centuries. Although these events were separated by about 57 years
(approximately 2 Saturnian years) there is yet no explanation why they
apparently follow a cycle -- occurring when it is summer in Saturn's
Credit: Reta Beebe (New Mexico State University), D. Gilmore, L. Bergeron (STScI), and NASA