Planets and Moons  ID: 30883

Saturn's Hexagon as Summer Solstice Approaches

These natural color views (and corresponding animated movie sequences) from NASA's Cassini spacecraft compare the appearance of Saturn's north-polar region in June 2013 and April 2017. In both views, Saturn's polar hexagon dominates the scene. The comparison shows how clearly the color of the region changed in the interval between the two views, which represents the latter half of Saturn's northern hemisphere spring.

In 2013, the entire interior of the hexagon appeared blue. By 2017, most of the hexagon's interior was covered in yellowish haze, and only the center of the polar vortex retained the blue color. The seasonal arrival of the sun's ultraviolet light triggers the formation of photochemical aerosols, leading to haze formation. The general yellowing of the polar region is believed to be caused by smog particles produced by increasing solar radiation shining on the polar region as Saturn approached the northern summer solstice on May 24, 2017.

Scientists are considering several ideas to explain why the center of the polar vortex remains blue while the rest of the polar region has turned yellow. One idea is that, because the atmosphere in the vortex's interior is the last place in the northern hemisphere to be exposed to spring and summer sunlight, smog particles have not yet changed the color of the region. A second explanation hypothesizes that the polar vortex may have an internal circulation similar to hurricanes on Earth. If the Saturnian polar vortex indeed has an analogous structure to terrestrial hurricanes, the circulation should be downward in the eye of the vortex. The downward circulation should keep the atmosphere clear of the photochemical smog particles, and may explain the blue color.

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Amy Moran (GST): Lead Technical Support
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Hampton University

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