Based on a study published on Monday in the journal Nature Communications, the intriguing hexagon from Saturn’s north pole is much taller than what the scientists had previously thought.
This jet stream of air that moves at the top of the gas giant was believed to reach its limits in the planet’s troposphere. However, it appears that this peculiar structure extends approximately 180 miles above the clouds from the top, reaching the stratosphere. As the new study suggests, this is true at least during the northern spring and summer.
The hexagon was discovered in 1980 and 1981, when NASA’ Voyager spacecraft flew over Saturn. A small circular vortex lies at the center of the hexagon.
The Cassini spacecraft managed to observe more details about the hexagon back in 2004, but until 2014 not much improvement was made towards analyzing the hexagon, due to the low temperatures in the ringed planet’s stratosphere, which were constantly compromising the measurements of the craft’s CIRS instrument.
A fascinating discovery
Now, a few years later, those observations have just been recently analyzed. What the scientists have found is quite amazing. Sandrine Guerlet, a co-author of the study, mentioned that they observed how the polar vortex also has hexagonal edges and realized that what they were looking at was, in fact, the pre-existing hexagon, but this time at a much higher altitude. This structure from the stratosphere owes its existence to the warming that is caused by the change of seasons on Saturn, which takes place every 7.5 Earth years.
Another interesting finding was that there is an asymmetry between the giant planet’s poles. It looks like the southern vortex from stratosphere of Saturn is not hexagonal and neither is the one that is spinning around the south pole in the troposphere.