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Space Friday, February 1st 2013 at 8:32 am

This Thunderstorm On Saturn Wrapped all The Way Around The Planet And Touched Its Own Tail

Every once in a while, a story comes along to which the only appropriate response is “Dang.” This morning brings us one such story, as images taken by NASA’s Cassini probe in orbit around Saturn show it was host to a thunderstorm so massive that it wrapped around the entire planet. Like a snake attempting to eat its own tail, the atmospheric disturbance raced through Saturn’s atmosphere with such speed and power that it eventually ran into its own rear end. That encounter seems to have caused it to sputter out, as if the storm somehow consumed itself, though the reasons for that are unclear to researchers.

This isn’t the first impressive storm we’ve seen on the famously ringed planet, which still hosts a vortex the size of the continental United States at its northern pole, but it is a great example of why Saturn is such a good spot for young storms to develop into planet-spaning monsters of unspeakable power and vastness. Kunio Sayanagi, who was lead author on a recent paper about the storm in the journal Icarus, offers the tale of the tape:

“This thunder-and-lightning storm on Saturn was a beast… The storm head itself thrashed for 201 days, and its updraft erupted with an intensity that would have sucked out the entire volume of Earth’s atmosphere in 150 days. And it also created the largest vortex ever observed in the troposphere of Saturn, expanding up to 7,500 miles across.”

At one point, the storm itself spanned 190,000 miles of lightning throwing fury, encircling the entire planet. The phenomenal power of the storm, though, may have been its own undoing, as months after it formed, the head of the storm encountered its own tail, apparently

Researchers are still baffled by what mechanism could have shut the storm down, as there’s no analog here on Earth for a storm so big it encounters its own wake. While this storm would have acted in many ways like a normal, god-fearing Earth hurricane, Saturn acted like sort of a straightaway for the fast moving storm. The planet has no land masses like mountain ranges to block a storm, slowing it down and forcing it to lose energy. That means storms can keep going until they run out of gas on their own — or until they run smack into their own butt and presumably die of embarrassment.

(via NASA)

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