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    A Storm Large Enough to Pull Water from Saturn's Depths

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

    That absolutely massive storm swirling across Saturn's face in the above photo was captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in February 2011, some 12 weeks after the storm began. But its awesome power aside, the storm provided fascinating insight into the inner workings of the ringed planet.

    According to a paper published in Icarus, the storm dredged up material from up to 100 miles deep inside the gas giant. Better yet, near-infrared measurements from the Cassini spacecraft suggest that some of the material ripped up by the storm was water ice. Similar processes happen on Jupiter, but Saturn's appear to be more robust.

    "It demonstrates in a very real sense that typically demure-looking Saturn can be just as explosive or even more so than typically stormy Jupiter," co-author Kevin Baines said in a release.

    Saturn has been known to contain water, and its outer atmosphere consists of ammonia ice on the outside with water ice and even water vapor as you move inward. But as the new paper explains, the Cassini team found evidence of water ice on the surface of the 2010-2011 storm, which was likely pulled up in vapor form from deeper within Saturn before condensing and freezing.

    “We think this huge thunderstorm is driving these cloud particles upward, sort of like a volcano bringing up material from the depths and making it visible from outside the atmosphere,” Lawrence Sromovsky, who led the research, said in a NASA release. “The upper haze is so optically thick that it is only in the stormy regions where the haze is penetrated by powerful updrafts that you can see evidence for the ammonia ice and the water ice. Those storm particles have an infrared color signature that is very different from the haze particles in the surrounding atmosphere.”

    Cassini, which is currently orbiting Saturn, is responsible for a boatload of research on the planet and its moons. While looking at Saturn's storms is rather exciting—while huge storms like the 2010 one only come around every 30 years or so, Saturn also has a semi-permanent hurricane at its North Pole—Cassini has also gathered information on what Saturn sounds like as well as Titan's methane rains