A massive blizzard is raging on Saturn — a storm so large and fierce NASA astronomers and amateur skywatchers can see it from Earth.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn has a front row seat to the otherworldly tempest and is recording the most detailed data yet of storms on the ringed planet. But amateur astronomers back on Earth have also managed to chip in on the Saturn blizzard stormwatch.
“We were so excited to get a heads-up from the amateurs,” said Cassini scientist Gordon Bjoraker, a composite infrared spectrometer team member based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
The data showed a large, turbulent storm, dredging up a lot of material from the deep atmosphere and covering an area at least five times larger than the biggest blizzard that hit Earth so far this year — the “Snowmageddon” storm that blanketed the Washington, D.C. area in snow in February. [Saturn’s rings and moons.]
Saturn’s ‘storm alley’
Cassini’s radio and plasma wave instrument and imaging cameras have been tracking thunder and lightning storms on Saturn for years in a region around Saturn’s mid-latitudes that is nicknamed “storm alley.”
But, gathering data on storms requires a tricky balancing act, since storms on Saturn can come and go on a time scale of weeks, while Cassini’s imaging and spectrometer observations have to be locked in place months in advance.
Given these limitations, NASA sometimes enlists the help of amateur astronomers.
The radio and plasma wave instrument regularly picks up electrostatic discharges that are associated with the storms, so scientists have been sending periodic tips to amateurs, who can quickly go to their backyard telescopes and try to spy the bright convective storm clouds.
Amateur astronomers Anthony Wesley, Trevor Barry and Christopher Go received one of those notices in February, and were able to snap dozens of pictures over the next several weeks.
In fact, in late March, Wesley — who is based in Australia and was the first person spot the aftermath of an comet impact on Jupiter last summer — sent Cassini scientists an e-mail with a picture of the storm attached.
“I wanted to be sure that images like these were being seen by the Cassini team just in case this was something of interest to be imaged directly by Cassini or the Hubble Space Telescope,” Wesley wrote.
Cassini scientists analyzed all the images in detail, including a picture from March 13 of the storm at its peak, taken by Go, who lives in the Philippines.