5 Epic Space Storms That Are Still Raging
published during a waxing crescent moon.
02/12/2016

The big red storm on Jupiter is a thing of wonder: Though it’s lasted hundreds of years, it could swallow our planet. The Great Red Spot gets most of the attention, but other celestial bodies have winds to boast, too:

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This close-up of swirling clouds around Jupiter’s Great Red Spot was taken by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA/JPL

1. Saturn’s ghostly gusts.

Its Great White Spots may come and go, but their grandiosity doesn’t. A year on Saturn is about 30 Earthly ones, so its seasonal shifts are so gradual that sometimes we miss out on them when our spacecraft float on elsewhere. But Voyager and Cassini have managed to capture the lightning fests wrapping around the planet. If you thought Helen Hunt and company were screwed in Twister, these storms range up to 12,000 miles.

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NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captures a composite near-true-color view of the huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. This storm is the largest and most intense observed on Saturn by NASA’s Voyager or Cassini spacecraft. The storm is still active. As scientists have tracked this storm over several months, they have found it covers 500 times the area of the biggest of the southern hemisphere storms observed earlier in the Cassini mission. The shadow cast by Saturn’s rings has a strong seasonal effect, and it is possible that the switch to powerful storms now being located in the northern hemisphere is related to the change of seasons after the planet’s August 2009 equinox. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

2. And its quaint accessory: a geometric hat.

At Saturn’s north pole, there’s no merry churning of elves and penguins. Instead there’s a whirling hexagon-shaped vortex. (Quick reminder: A vortex has a circular current.) It was first spotted during Voyager’s mission a few decades ago and was still speeding along when Cassini visited. While it looks whimsical, nearly four Earths could fit in it.

The vortex is resilient most likely because like Jupiter’s eye, Saturn hasn’t the same topography as Earth to break it up. Scientists have even managed to recreate the honeycomb shape in a lab. Take a look at the video here, which uses fluorescent dye to show the flow, and read more about it in this post from the Planetary Society.

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Saturn’s north polar hexagon basks in the Sun’s light now that spring has come to the northern hemisphere. Many smaller storms dot the north polar region and Saturn’s signature rings, which appear to disappear on account of Saturn’s shadow, put in an appearance in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

3. Titan’s nether regions.

Cover your little one’s eyes, because it’s about to get a little NSFW in here. Like its main squeeze, one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, has a similar polar vortex — except it’s (ahem) down south. It’s also gravely toxic, hovering 200 miles above the surface spouting hydrogen cyanide. A gigantic blemish-like ice cloud has since been forming near the pole as Titan coasts into its next 7.5-year season, winter.

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As winter sets in at Titan’s south pole, a cloud system called the south polar vortex (small, bright “button”) has been forming, as seen in this 2013 image. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

4. Neptune’s turbulent secret.

In the late ‘80s, astronomers discovered that Neptune had a dark Earth-sized storm, despite it only receiving a scrap of sunlight. On its frigid surface was a Great Dark Spot, rushing at winds up to 750 miles per hour. Though the storm has since disappeared, others have since cropped up.

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Neptune as seen by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA

5. This distant dwarf.

This star doesn’t quite have a name yet other than W1906+40, so let’s just call him Jeff. Jeff is a star about the size of Jupiter, so he’s on the more petite end of the star spectrum. More specifically, he’s an L-dwarf, meaning he’s pretty cool (thermally, at least), according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In a study published last year, astronomers identified a cloudy squall on Jeff with a diameter that could hold three Earths and whirls around the star every 9 hours.

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This illustration shows a cool star, called W1906+40, marked by a raging storm near one of its poles. The storm is thought to be similar to the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. Scientists discovered it using NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech