7 Jul 2011

Saturn's storms rage on

10:23 pm on 7 July 2011

One of the most violent weather events in the Solar System is still enthralling astronomers since it began in December last year.

The British journal Nature says a thunderstorm as wide as the Earth, with discharges of lightning 10,000 times more powerful than normal, continues to unfold on Saturn.

Storms occur on average once every Saturnian year - nearly 30 Earth years - and appear to be linked to the summer solstice, when the planet's orbit brings it a bit closer to the Sun and its atmosphere warms a little, the ABC reports.

Two studies draw on observations by professional and amateur astronomers using a broad range of equipment, from relatively small ground-based telescopes to NASA's scoutcraft Cassini.

Saturn, like Jupiter, is no stranger to convective storms. It is also a 'gas giant', a planet comprising layers of thick, roiling gases, rather than a rock, like Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury.

The difference, though, is that Jupiter's mega-storms tend to erupt unexpectedly, but Saturn's monster storms occur almost periodically.