Watch a continent-sized hurricane whip around Saturn’s north pole

744808main_pia14944_full_fullScientists have gotten their first close-up view of the enormous hurricane that has been churning for years at the North Pole of our solar system’s ringed beauty Saturn.

The whirlwind sits at the center of a large and mysterious structure known as Saturn’s hexagon, a polygon-shaped stream whose each side is larger than the entire Earth. Astronomers used NASA’s Cassini spacecraft to fly right over the hexagon and captured the gigantic hurricane within. The eye of the system alone is 2,000 kilometers across, about half the length of Australia or – as Wolfram Alpha kindly points out – a bit bigger than the distance the Proclaimers would walk, just to be the man that walks a thousand miles to fall down at your door.

Though 20 times larger than an average Terran twister, the hurricane is very similar to the ones we see on Earth. Both have central eyes with low-hanging clouds surrounded by a wall of higher clouds spiraling around. Saturn’s hurricane winds are four times stronger than those on Earth, whipping by at 530 kmph (330 mph). Cyclones on our planet also tend to move around but Saturn’s polar storm has nowhere to go, remaining stuck in place for years.

Scientists were unable to see much of the storm until now because Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, when the planet’s Northern Hemisphere was in its winter darkness. Spring arrived in 2009 and Cassini’s planners had to choreograph the gravitational swings needed to get the spacecraft to fly by the maelstrom and get a good close-up view years in advance. A couple of mind-blowing false color images of the storm are below.

Scientists have color coded the clouds in Saturn’s North Pole hurricane. Red clouds are lower while green clouds are higher in the atmosphere.

A false-color wide view of the North Pole hurricane and surrounding hexagon.

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