It’s easy to be distracted by Saturn’s rings—which are so awesome in the original sense of that word—and by its jewelbox of moons. But the planet itself is amazing, a surface-less sea of clouds.
From a distance, Saturn looks majestic, tranquil, serene. But don’t let that fool you. The cloudscapes are seething with whirlpools, currents, eddies—and sometimes huge storms. A hurricane on Earth is considered strong if its winds reach 200 km/h. On Saturn the wind speed can pass 1,600 km/h. Some of the energy that drives that weather doesn’t come from the Sun, but wells up from the unimaginable depths inside the planet itself. Down there, the winds blow even faster. Saturn’s storms also discharge powerful lightning, as much as 10,000 times stronger than on Earth. At its most intense, a recent storm generated more than 10 lightning flashes per second.
Still, the overall result is beautiful. The storms of Saturn stretch from horizon to far horizon in elaborate displays of complexity, color, and power.
To show just how diverse and intricate the atmosphere can be, below is a series of very recent images from the Cassini spacecraft as it floated over the cloudtops. It’s remarkable that they were all acquired over just a few days during the last week of February. Click to enlarge.
This post originally appeared as a guest blog entry on The Planetary Society web site.