Saturn’s Outward Calm

Sarutn's Serene Surface

image courtesy of NASA

Saturn’s Outward Calm
| published May 18, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

The surface of the giant planet Saturn is a place of turmoil and storm and (literally) breathtaking deadly power. On a typical Saturn day winds can exceed 1000 miles per hour, and storm systems swirl like high speed hurricanes and massive tornadoes, turning the atmosphere into a murky, dense soup of gas—helium, hydrogen, ammonia, methane—and dust.

Try this image: those surface (though technically Saturn has no solid “surface”) wind speeds are powerful enough to erase every trace of every brick and every square foot of stone of The Great Wall of China, the Kremlin, and the Pentagon in a matter of minutes, and by the time the rubble had been swept a few miles downstream, what was left would be turned to dust.

But as this recent NASA image taken from the space ship Cassini, from a certain distance Saturn appears to be the very model of serenity, peace and patience. This photograph, according to NASA, was taken using Cassini’s special wide angle lens in early February of this year. The photo was taken from a distance of about 1.6 million miles, and the image resolution is 96 miles per pixel.

One explanation for Saturn’s high winds is that the “surface,” which is merely layers of gas and superheated dust in varying degrees of density, has no solid objects—no mountain ranges, no hills, no craters or canyons, no substantial geological features of any kind—and therefore has nothing to brake or decelerate the winds. Storm systems and patterns of high speed dust and gases can therefore move unimpeded.

The Cassini-Huygens program is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The spaceship is an unmanned, robotic probe that contains a variety of scientific equipment and instrumentation, and is powered by a tiny plutonium reactor.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Rings of Saturn; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; March 17, 2015.

Photo Perfect Landing; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; March 12, 2015.