A powerful lightning storm in Saturn’s atmosphere that began in mid-January 2009 has become the Solar System’s longest continuously observed thunderstorm. It broke the record duration of 7.5 months set by another thunderstorm observed on Saturn by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft between November 2007 and July 2008.
The observations of the thunderstorm will be presented by Dr Georg Fischer of the Austrian Academy of Sciences at the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam, Germany, on Tuesday 15 September.
The current thunderstorm on Saturn is the ninth that has been measured since Cassini swung into orbit around Saturn in July 2004. Lightning discharges in Saturn’s atmosphere emit very powerful radio waves, which are measured by the antennas and receivers of the Cassini Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument. The radio waves are about 10 000 times stronger than their terrestrial counterparts and originate from huge thunderstorms in Saturn’s atmosphere with diameters around 3000 km.
Dr Fischer said: “These lightning storms are not only astonishing for their power and longevity, the radio waves that they emit are also useful for studying Saturn’s ionosphere, the charged layer that surrounds the planet a few thousand kilometres above the cloud tops. The radio waves have to cross the ionosphere to get to Cassini and thereby act as a natural tool to probe the structure of the layer and the levels of ionisation in different regions.”