NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured the most high-resolution video ever taken of a bizarre six-sided jet stream known as the hexagon that circulates around Saturn's north pole.
The video, which NASA released late Tuesday, is the first hexagon movie of it's kind, the space agency said in a news release. It is the first to show a complete top-view of Saturn down to about 70 degrees latitude.
The weather system is large and volatile, spanning about 20,000 miles across and churning with the force of 200-mile-per-hour winds. In the video a massive storm can seen rotating at the hexagon's center. The weather system appears to be unique in the solar system; no other planets are know to have a system with the same features.
"The hexagon is just a current of air, and weather features out there that share similarities to this are notoriously turbulent and unstable," said Andrew Ingersoll, a Cassini imaging team member at the California Institute of Technology. "A hurricane on Earth typically lasts a week, but this has been here for decades -- and who knows -- maybe centuries."
Jupiter's big red spot is perhaps a better known extraterrestrial weather phenomenon, and since both systems occur on planets that are essentially giant balls of gas, neither are stalled by the landforms or ice caps that create the friction that causes weather systems to break apart here on Earth.
The Cassini images were made possible by Saturn's orientation with the Sun. As the star began to illuminate the the northern hemisphere of Saturn in 2012, it literally shed light on the hexagon's interior. Cassini captured images of the hexagon over a 10-hour time span.
Stitched together as a video, the result is a clear view of the systems' rotation patterns and the size and direction of the hexagon's multiple vorticies, the largest of which spans about 2,200 miles - about twice the size of the largest hurricane ever recorded on Earth.
Scientists said that the ozone hole above Antarctica behaves similarly to the hexagon system. The cold conditions in the Antarctic climate enable an ozone-destroying chemical process to occur, and the jet stream prevents a resupply of ozone from the outside.
A similar process is happening with aerosol particles on Saturn.
"The hexagonal jet stream is acting like a barrier, which results in something like Earth's Antarctic ozone hole," said Kunio Sayanagi, a Cassini imaging team associate at Hampton University in Virginia.
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