Saturn, the second largest planet in the solar system, has always been an object of interest to astronomers. Its rings and bright visible cloud layer have attracted the attention of scientists from around the world. But a new study by astronomers from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor reveals another side to this enigmatic planet.
The researchers studied Saturn’s radio emissions and found long-term irregularities in the distribution of ammonia gas in its atmosphere. These disturbances have been linked to megastorms that occur on the planet every 20 to 30 years. These storms are similar in nature to Earth’s hurricanes, but they are much stronger and longer lasting.
However, as with Jupiter, scientists still don’t know what causes these megastorms on Saturn. The planet’s atmosphere is made up mostly of hydrogen and helium, with small amounts of methane, water and ammonia. It is ammonia that plays a key role in Saturn’s radio emissions, as it blocks radio waves. The researchers found that in areas where ammonia is depleted, the radio emission becomes weaker.
This discovery has important implications not only for understanding Saturn’s atmosphere, but also for broader planetary science. As the study’s lead author Cheng Li noted, it “challenges our current knowledge and pushes the boundaries of terrestrial meteorology.” Understanding the mechanisms of the strongest storms in the solar system will help scientists better understand not only the giant planets, but also the processes occurring on Earth.
For the study, astronomers used the Carl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico to study radio emissions from deep inside Saturn. Radio observations allow them to determine the composition of the planet’s atmosphere and study the dynamic, physical and chemical processes that occur in its atmosphere.
Exploring Saturn is just one of the many challenges astronomers face in studying the planets in the solar system. Each planet hides its own secrets and mysteries that scientists strive to unravel. And only with the latest technology and research methods can we get closer to answering these questions.