CICLOPS: Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for OPerationS
Captain's Log
July 6, 2011

A Great Northern Storm

Sacre bleu! Our great good fortune to be in orbit around Saturn has won us an unprecedented view of a dramatic and startling meteorological phenomenon: the rapid and violent onset of a massive, hissing, lightning-producing storm in the northern Saturnian hemisphere that has raged for the last seven months, with no end in sight.

The first indications that a major storm had erupted were intense electrostatic emissions, the usual accompaniment to lightning flashes, detected by Cassini's Radio and Plasma Wave experiment on December 5, 2010. Also that day, by coincidence, our cameras sighted a bright white cloud at approximately 35 degrees north latitude. A few days later, after notification by Cassini scientists, amateur observers all around the globe got into the act and helped document the development of what became a gargantuan storm that, by late January 2011, had wrapped completely around the planet because of the pronounced wind shear at the storm's latitude. And Cassini was there to record this major Saturnian event in detail ... a space exploration first!

That such a phenomenon would occur at 35 degrees northern latitude during northern spring is puzzling and remarkable. Since we arrived at Saturn seven years ago, and while the sun shone on the southern hemisphere during southern summer, Cassini observed only 10 lightning storms and they all erupted in a region around 35 degrees southern latitude that we imaging scientists dubbed `Storm Alley' for obvious reasons. (On Earth and on Jupiter, lightning storms are far more frequent and smaller than anything we've yet observed on Saturn.) The first such storm in this region, initially heard in July 2004 and finally seen in September the same year, was the famed Dragon Storm.

And now that the seasons have advanced and the sun is currently shining in the north, the region of major storm activity and intense electrostatic discharges is mirrored in the north at the same distance from the equator. Why this symmetry should exist we haven't a clue at the moment. But you can be sure that our atmospheric scientists are going to be noodling this one out for quite some time!

And they will also be puzzling over the enormous level of gorgeous detail seen in our false-color images, from the structure and stratigraphy of the clouds in the head of the storm to the appearance of a string of several bluish ovals seen in the portion of the storm to the south that has wrapped around the planet and overtaken the storm's head.

One might think that after years in orbit around Saturn, we are now accustomed to great big happenings and fantastic spectacles. But far from it. It is the shock of the unexpected, the intense mind-grabbing, eye-popping, soul-stirring thrill of seeing the unseen that gets us every time. And, as all of you well know, that is what this glorious, history-making exploration of Saturn and its magnificent realm is all about.

Carolyn Porco
Cassini Imaging Team Leader
Space Science Institute
Boulder, CO

More Captain's Logs

Alliance Member Comments
Shechaiyah (Oct 12, 2011 at 9:40 PM):
I am so sorry. I called NASA again today about the specious photos that you put out. Horrifying. ... What do you think? We're STUPID? Rotated 90 degrees, contrast undeveloped, hues undeveloped, nobody's going to see anything meaningful. But with errors CORRECTED, we see a right-hand COLUMN for the entrance into Saturn. The column is carefully and delicately CARVED with HUMAN figures and motifs! Hello! Anybody home here?
Breitstar (Sep 14, 2011 at 9:33 PM):
Yeah, I like the big thinker. Lightning in the clouds of the soup and you don't know what you got. It's like finding life in the rocks miles underground or the thermal vents 5 miles down on the oceans of Earth. You never know.
I think it's everywhere in one form or another.
Rock on!
Kevin S. Moore (Jul 23, 2011 at 11:50 PM):
Not a Moon. No life on a Moon. If I were Life I would
pick something bigger. Something with lots of organic
stuff to make the soup. Imgaine: a Goldie Locks zone in
the upper Saturn atmostphere. Then at the right time,
during a summer.. release the reproductive cycle after
years of hibernation like a spore or some sort of Saturn
verson of life we don't know about. In a very cold environment
only millmeters short of a frozen zone. Green like a plant
leaf. The Storm as THEY call it, may be nothing but what the
data tells THEM. Spectrographs and other hints may prove it to
be nothing but... a Saturn Storm. Lets not forget, amature
telesopes caught it first. But the photos belong to the Cassini team. Which are excellent.
NeKto (Jul 20, 2011 at 11:31 AM):
There you go again; having way too much fun at work! When images like this come down, it is a lot more like being paid to play. i revel in your good fortune, largely because we get to enjoy it too!
what a spectacular phenomenon.
dholmes (Jul 12, 2011 at 3:40 PM):
Life on Saturn. Not too sure Kevin, but on Enceladus oh yeah I truly think so.
dholmes (Jul 12, 2011 at 3:37 PM):
What about the greenish (for lack of a better word)crown or head at the front of the massive storm. Is that an ammonia cloud front being reflected back by the sun? If not what gaseous compound is it?
Kevin S. Moore (Jul 10, 2011 at 9:01 PM):
I think that it is life on Saturn. But what do I know. I live
under the cloudy skys over ... :) Wonderful picutres.
Almost fractal like in structure but much smoother. Its
interesting that everthing else around the storm remains
smooth and undisturbed. That would be Saturnian life if it
is alive. There is certainly alot of energy in the storm.
What ever it is.
Edsel Chromie (Jul 9, 2011 at 2:04 PM):
Has it occurred to anyone that this "storm"could be created by flux energy from the Sun impacting on ferrous minerals that is moving through the magnetic field of Saturn? This would generate awesome lightning and stimulate the atoms of gases to a glowing state of excitement similar to sodium vapor lamps and fluorescent lights.
azolnai (Jul 8, 2011 at 3:08 AM):
The stunning photographs and stories are fully matched by your silver tongue and golden pen. Thanks to the entire team for your indefatigable efforts, a shining beacon of human achievement in days of passing space programs. Cheers, Andrew
pizwiz (Jul 7, 2011 at 1:57 PM):
Absolutely stunning Images!
BTW, your news releases and images have a very devout following here in Rochester, NY.!

I give presentations on Astronomy in several senior homes, and each presentation starts with an update of the Cassini mission.
The senior residents follow your story very much like a serial TV show. Each satellite, moonlet and feature is for them like a character in a movie series and each has it's fans.

Thank you for keeping them coming!!
Bontebok (Jul 7, 2011 at 2:53 AM):
Amazing images as always, thanks Cassini team.

The storm itself is absolutely remarkable, but strangely enough what amazed me more about this particular image was simply the perfect bands of shadows on the planet surface. It's hard to believe that nature is capable of such symmetry.
JamesH (Jul 6, 2011 at 1:19 PM):
Can we see movies of this system? You might have some very long sequences of the storm's head, that would be very cool.