– Ex astris, scientia –
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The earliest image of the storm, taken Dec. 5, 2010, is in the top left of the panel. The storm appears only as a small, white cloud on the terminator between the day side and night side of the planet.
The next view, in the top middle of the panel and taken Jan. 2, 2011, shows that the head quickly grew much larger and a tail began to trail a great distance eastward. Some of the clouds moved south and got caught up in a current that flows to the east (to the right) relative to the storm head. In the top right of the panel, this tail, which appears as slightly blue clouds south and now west (left) of the storm head, can be seen encountering the storm in the Feb. 25 image.
The April 22 image, in the bottom left of the panel, is one of Cassini’s last views of the storm when it still had a recognizable head. In this view, the tail is south of the head and is well established by this time.
The May 18 view, in the bottom middle, shows only the storm’s tail. The head still existed at this time, but it is beyond the horizon and out of the field of view here. (Photo by NASA)
Saturn’s atmosphere and its rings are shown here in a false color composite made from Cassini images taken in near infrared light through filters that sense different amounts of methane gas. Portions of the atmosphere with a large abundance of methane above the clouds are red, indicating clouds that are deep in the atmosphere. Grey indicates high clouds, and brown indicates clouds at intermediate altitudes. The rings are bright blue because there is no methane gas between the ring particles and the camera.
The complex feature with arms and secondary extensions just above and to the right of center is called the Dragon Storm. It lies in a region of the southern hemisphere referred to as “storm alley” by imaging scientists because of the high level of storm activity observed there by Cassini in the last year. (Photo by NASA)
Scientists said the lightning was recorded across an area 100 miles wide. The spacecraft spotted a total of eight lightning flashes.
The storm which resulted in the powerful lightning strike is the longest-lived storm ever recorded on the planet, beginning in December 2010 and lasting for an incredible 200 days. It ended in late June last year.
At its peak, it wrapped completely around the planet. The Cassini spacecraft was launched by NASA in 1997 and since 2006 has been orbiting Saturn. Its latest mission is expected to last until 2017.
Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker said: “Saturn’s atmosphere has been changing over the eight years Cassini has been at Saturn, and we can’t wait to see what happens next”.