New model explains Saturn’s hexagon shaped storm

The solar system has some strange stuff in it. Learning how it ended up that way can tell us where we're going.

New model explains Saturn’s hexagon shaped storm

Image of the Hexagon shaped storm at Saturn's North Pole taken by the Cassini–Huygens mission.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute – Public Domain
  • A new model of Saturn's atmosphere might finally explain how a bizarrely shaped storm developed there.
  • The model produced a polygonal storm system similar, but not identical to, that observed on Saturn.
  • The findings may shed light on the formation of the solar system.

The Solar System has some strange stuff in it. Uranus rotates on its side, Venus turns backward, Mercury is shrinking, Neptune radiates away far more heat than it gets from the sun, and Saturn has a hexagonal shaped storm at its north pole.

In their never ending attempt to understand the cosmos, scientists have dedicated a fair amount of time to these topics. Now, after years of speculation, a new article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may finally explain the source of Saturn's bizarrely shaped storm.

First noticed in the 1980s by the passing Voyager spacecraft and later observed by the Cassini–Huygens mission, the storm is an estimated 29,000 km (18,000 mi) wide with sides 2,000 km (1,200 mi) longer than the diameter of the Earth. It has been known to change color, from blue to gold, and rotates with the same period as Saturn's natural radio emissions. No similarly shaped storm exists at the south pole, though a storm vortex has been seen there.

No similar storm is known to exist anywhere.

To determine how the storm takes on its unique shape, Harvard Professor and Jeremy Bloxham and research associate Rakesh K. Yadav created a model of Saturn's atmosphere that simulates the planet's outer layer. Running the simulation for a month, they found that the movement of heat could cause massive polar storms and a robust eastward jet stream. When these phenomena combine, they form the peculiar shape in an attempt to share the same space.

The study's lead author Rakesh K. Yadav explained what is happening to

"This jet is going around and around the planet, and it has to coexist with these localized [smaller] storms. Imagine we have a rubber band and we place a bunch of smaller rubber bands around it and then we just squeeze the entire thing from the outside. That central ring is going to be compressed by some inches and form some weird shape with a certain number of edges. That's basically the physics of what's happening. We have these smaller storms and they're basically pinching the larger storms at the polar region and since they have to coexist, they have to somehow find a space to basically house each system. By doing that, they end up making this polygonal shape."

Their model also suggested that the storms are forming very deep in Saturn's atmosphere, a potential reason why it has endured as long as it has without a significant change in shape or intensity. Debate continues on how far down the storm goes. While this study does lend weight towards the stance that it extends very far, perhaps thousands of kilometers, into the Saturnian atmosphere, the model was limited to simulating surface and near-surface activity.

Further refinement of the model will be needed to settle this debate.

It must also be pointed out that what the model created wasn't a hexagon but a nine-sided polygon (a nonagon) that rotated at a different rate than the storm on Saturn. Despite this, the scientists argue that this is a proof of concept which supports the central thesis on how such a strangely shaped storm can come into existence and endure for longer than four decades.

Why this matters on Earth

Figuring this out can also help shed light on Saturn's formation as, by extension, the formation of the solar system. As Yadav explains:

"From a scientific point of view, the atmosphere is really important in determining how quickly a planet cools. All these things you see on the surface, they're basically manifestations of the planet cooling down and the planet cooling down tells us a lot about what's happening inside of the planet. The scientific motivation is basically understanding how Saturn came to be and how it evolves over time."

Understanding how the solar system came into being can help us not only understand how other star systems might work but also help us determine how our solar system, including Earth, will change in the future. So even if you don't have to worry about a hexagonal storm anytime soon, you may someday benefit from the attempt to understand how such a thing could ever exist.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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