Although NASA’s Cassini mission ended almost one full year ago, researchers continue to analyze the stream of data the spacecraft beamed back to us before it plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere in what could only be described as a fiery death.
Cassini divulged a lot about Saturn’s curious atmosphere, including the presence of a massive hexagonal structure deep within the clouds at the planet’s North pole. But as a new study published this week in the journal Nature Communications points out, we’re still far from understanding it in its entirety.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University
Perhaps the most intriguing point brought up by the study is that the changing of the seasons on Saturn yields captivating changes to the planet’s hexagonal structure. More specifically, a high-altitude vortex appears to materialize around the entire perimeter of it.
The researchers are still pondering how and why the vortex formed how it did, but they do note some rather peculiar circumstances surrounding its emergence.
First and foremost, the vortex exists at altitudes several miles above the core hexagonal structure that researchers have been studying since the 1980’s. But what’s even more fascinating is how the vortex appears to carefully trek along the hexagonal boundaries of the structure beneath it.
"The edges of this newly-found vortex appear to be hexagonal, precisely matching a famous and bizarre hexagonal cloud pattern we see deeper down in Saturn's atmosphere," explained study lead author Leigh Fletcher.
Cassini studied Saturn for many years before space agencies officially terminated the mission in 2017, but it wasn’t until closer to the end of the mission that planetary scientists seized a unique opportunity to study the Northern stratosphere up close with the spacecraft’s colorful array of observation equipment.
But as you can probably imagine, experts in the field are delighted that they took hold of the opportunity when they had the chance, as the results were well worth it.
"The mystery and extent of the hexagon continue to grow, even after Cassini’s 13 years in orbit around Saturn," added Linda Spilker, the project scientist for the Cassini mission. "I look forward to seeing other new discoveries that remain to be found in the Cassini data."
This probably won’t be the last discovery scientists make with Cassini’s data. That said, it’s exciting to think about what researchers might uncover next. Only time will tell, however.