In related research, University of Arizona planetary scientists Yuan Lian and Adam Showman unveiled computer models demonstrating how thunderstorms could power fast-moving jet streams on all the gas giants: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
Jet streams—east-west flowing rivers of air—are major drivers of global circulation on Earth.
Images from the Pioneer and Voyager spacecrafts taken in the 1970s and 1980s showed the jet streams in high detail, but left scientists struggling to figure out what causes them to form.
Based on their models, Lian and Showman have shown that thunderstorms like those known to exist on Jupiter and Saturn can produce the number and type of jet streams observed on all four gas giants.
Their results, along with the Saturn cyclone images, were presented during the American Astronomical Society's 40th annual Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting currently being held in Ithaca, New York.
Speaking from the DPS meeting, Showman agreed that thunderstorms could power both the giant planets' jet streams and the polar vortices on Saturn.
"That same idea, thunderstorms somehow driving that polar vortex has been kicking around for 30 years for explaining jet streams," he said. "For a long time, it's been at the level of a qualitative idea."
Showman said he watched the unveiling of the Cassini images, and "it was breathtaking. They're really amazing."
The southern polar vortex in particular is compelling, he said.
"There are a lot of curly-Q and swirly features in the interior that are really interesting, but I don't think anybody knows what they are. Nobody's tested it yet."
Much more work needs to be done to confirm both sets of results, he said.
Further Cassini observations are planned between now and August 2009 to see how the features evolve as the seasons change on Saturn from summer to fall.
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