I know I said in my previous post that the Solar System is not a vortex (and it’s not) but that doesn’t mean there are no vortexes in the Solar System—in fact, thanks to the churning atmospheres of the gas giants, it’s full of them! And that’s no better demonstrated than at the poles of Saturn, where giant hurricane-like storms spin away year after year, powered by atmospheric convection and the rapid rotation of the planet.
I’ve often posted about the vortex at the north pole of Saturn—and yes it’s quite impressive—but there’s also a similar feature at Saturn’s south pole as well, albeit a bit more subtle and much less turbulent. The image above is a color view, made from raw data acquired in red, green, blue, and polarized light by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on July 15, 2008. That was a just over a year before Saturn’s spring equinox and the planet’s south pole was moving into shadow, but still had enough illumination for Cassini to capture some images.
Check out a more direct view down into the vortex below:
Like a bad penny (or a grossly inaccurate science meme) this tends to rear its shiny animated head online at least a couple of times a year, and it seems this year will be no exception. It’s a GIF showing the motions of the Sun and planets through space, trailing glowing lines (which they don’t but that’s just an illustration) in order to “prove” that the Solar System is really a vortex and vortices are cosmically significant and life is magic and ehrmagerd your mind should = blown. Or something like that.
Except, other than being a pretty animation, it’s simply not the case. The creator, DjSadhu, is much more metaphysicist than astrophysicist (really he’s a music and video producer) and ultimately what he was supporting is a reconstruction of the heliocentric model and an alternate path of the Sun around the galaxy itself, which is simply just wrong. Luckily an astrophysicist and an astronomer—Rhys Taylor and Phil Plait, respectively—were more than willing to offer their professional opinions on the matter when this all first appeared, the former writing a blog post in response to the latter’s. I was able to convince Rhys to let me share his post on Universe Today, and it offers a lot of entertaining insight as to why that little animation is not only misleading but the herald of a slew of inaccuracies.
Read the full debunking on Universe Today: Is the Solar System Really a Vortex?
Note: A year after the original article(s) were published Rhys shared another in which he commends Sadhu for openly communicating about the physics involved and actually creating a more accurate version of the animation—and without the unscientific woo. You can (and I suggest you do) read that post here. Unfortunately on the internet nothing ever really goes away, so the first GIF inevitably shows up every now and then. Remember all this the next time it does.
Like some giant beast’s great blue eye Saturn’s north polar vortex appears to glare up at Cassini’s wide-angle camera in this image, a color-composite made from raw images acquired in red, green, and blue visible light wavelengths on February 13, 2017.
Yes, I said hexagon. If you haven’t heard, our solar system’s second-largest planet has another curious feature besides its sprawling rings; it’s also in possession of an uncannily geometric six-sided jet stream encircling its north pole — at the heart of which lies a churning hurricane-like vortex over 1,800 miles wide. This hexagon has been known about since the days of Voyager, and now NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has presented us with the highest-resolution look yet at this odd atmospheric phenomenon.
Oh man. It’s stuff like this that got me into space blogging in the first place.
Landing here on Earth last night, this is one of several new raw images from Cassini acquired yesterday (Nov. 27) showing the enormous cyclone of clouds swirling around Saturn’s geographic north pole. The angle of sunlight highlights the multilayered structure of the cyclone and surrounding cloud bands wonderfully… this is a roiling feature approximately 3-4,000 km across and in places appears to carve cloud channels hundreds of kilometers into Saturn’s atmosphere. Simply. Beautiful.
It’s been a while since we’ve gotten such a good look at Saturn’s north pole… over four years ago, I’d say, and in fact one of my very first blog posts here on LITD was of the hexagonal feature ringing Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Thanks to Cassini’s new orbital trajectory, which is taking it high over the ring plane and poles of Saturn, we have the opportunity to view the gas giant’s upper latitudes again.
In fact we even have a brand new look at the hexagon, which is still there, four years later: