Epic lightning storm electrocuting Saturn... for eight months

The entire universe in blog form
Sept. 15 2009 5:03 AM

Epic lightning storm electrocuting Saturn... for eight months

[Update to my note; the blog software upgrade is tomorrow, Wednesday, not today. Sorry for the confusion, BABloggees! The Hive Overmind is doing a blog upgrade today from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern time, and during that period commenting will be turned off. Don't panic!]

Scientists using data from the Cassini spacecraft have found something amazing: a lightning storm on Saturn that's lasted for nearly eight months! And it's still going.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Advertisement

Long lasting storms on planets aren't unusual; the Great Red Spot on Jupiter is at least 400 years old! But active lightning storms are more difficult to detect... unless you happen to be close by. Giant lightning bolts create vast discharges of radio energy, and Cassini's has an instrument sensitive to them. It's been monitoring Saturn for about five years now, and has seen lots of lightning storms. The previous record holder was 7.5 months, for a system that lasted from November 2007 to July of last year.

This new one has been raging since February, and shows no signs of abating. Storms on Saturn are a bit more violent than on Earth: they can be 3000 km (1800 miles) across, and discharge energy at rates 10,000 times higher than storms here on Earth!

Yikes.

Lightning on Saturn
Cassini image of a lightning storm from July 2008.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Sure, this stuff is cool -- giant killer electrical storms , woohoo! -- but it's also science. As these waves of energy plow through Saturn's ionosphere, scientists can use them to map out the structure of Saturn's environment and learn how the giant planet behaves. That's really the whole point, of course.

That, plus planet-spanning disaster-movie sized lightning storms! Cooooool.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 11:57 AM Iowa Radical The GOP’s Senate candidate doesn’t want voters to know just how conservative she really is.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 11:25 AM Naomi Klein Is Wrong Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.
  Life
The Vault
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 AM Thomas Jefferson's 1769 Newspaper Ad Seeking a Fugitive Slave 
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
  Arts
Behold
Sept. 30 2014 12:10 PM Violence, Love, and Hope: Growing Up in the Bronx in the 1980s
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 11:55 AM The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Sales of Spyware Used in Stalking
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.