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By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)

10/17/2013 (5 months ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Image teases out color in Saturn's most famous storm.

As a child, I was enticed into astronomy by amazing full-color photos of planets and nebulae published in glossy magazines and books. Anxious to see the colors hidden deep within the sky, I pointed my telescope to the heavens.

The mysterious gray-blue-tinted hexagonal storm is visible in this image captured on Oct. 10.

The mysterious gray-blue-tinted hexagonal storm is visible in this image captured on Oct. 10.

Article Highlights

By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

10/17/2013 (5 months ago)

Published in Technology

Keywords: Saturn, hexagon, storm, winds, pattern, color, explanation, mystery, Cassini


LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) – I was promptly disappointed. The Orion nebula played across the pages of my books in vivid greens and reds, but appeared as a gray smudge in my childhood telescope.

The same went for many other objects. Even planets were just pale disks. Jupiter only revealed a pair of dark brown bands against a cream-colored background. Saturn had rings, but everything was a pale-yellow color without detail. It was a disappointment.

The reason for the disconnect, I soon learned, was that we are used to looking at very colorful images of space that have been enhanced with color to display the various elements within. Cosmic structures can be quite complex, but only with great resolution can all the details and colors be teased out.

Recently, NASA restored some of my faith in cosmic imagery by releasing a true-color photo of Saturn's north pole. The north polar region is of particular interest to observers because it contains a unique feature unobserved anywhere else. The north pole of Saturn is covered with a hexagonal-shaped storm.

Gentle curves, ovals and circles are common in weather. However, a hexagon-shaped storm has only been observed on Saturn and until recently, has remained a great mystery. Also, the storm has a unique color to it, which is actually visible in the latest image, which makes the feature doubly interesting to many.

The hexagon appears to be created by differentials in wind speed across the planet. The planet is a gas giant, which means it likely has only a small solid core and is mostly made of gas. The deep atmosphere combines with the varying speeds of the wind that travels around the planet in belts, just like winds do on Earth, and we get a hexagon-shaped storm at the north pole where differences between wind speed are greatest.

The process has been recreated in the laboratory and researchers have found they can change the conditions to create geometric patterns with as few as three sides and as many additional sides as they like.

The storm itself is shepherded by the wind into a distinctive hexagon and shows up in high-resolution images with gray outer layers and a blue-tinted core. The colors are a product of the different gasses collected at the pole.

The image was captured by the Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting Saturn and looping past its moons on a long, multi-year mission to collect as much data as possible about Saturn and its enigmatic moons.

The color of the hexagon remains elusive to most observers from Earth. The average person observing the planet through telescope or binoculars with low magnification will still have trouble seeing any detail at all.

However, up close, the Cassini spacecraft can see features we can't see from our backyard and those features have color.

So for those of you like me who are saddened by the gray smudges we often see in our telescopes, take heart. Under the right magnification and by means of careful observing there's still a lot to see in the heavens, and yes, that includes plenty of color, if you're persistent.

(c) Catholic Online NEWS CONSORTIUM, 2013

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