Jet streams on Saturn due to planet’s heat

First Posted: Jun 26, 2012 06:47 AM EDT

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has uncovered fascinating accounts about the mechanism that drives turbulent jet streams in the Saturn's atmosphere and also regarding the source from which the jets derive their energy. The scientists have spent a great deal of time over the years in understanding this mechanism.

The turbulent jet streams churn east and west across Saturn. With the help of images, which was collected by Cassini spacecraft, the scientists have found that the heat from within the planet powers the jet stream.  This new study has been published in the June edition of the journal Icarus.

The sources claim that, condensation of water from Saturn's internal heating led to temperature differences in the atmosphere. The temperature differences created eddies, or disturbances that move air back and forth at the same latitude, and those eddies, in turn, accelerated the jet streams like rotating gears driving a conveyor belt.

A competing theory had assumed that the energy for the temperature differences came from the sun. That is how it works in the Earth's atmosphere.

Tony Del Genio of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, N.Y, the lead author of the paper and a member of the Cassini imaging team said, "We know that the atmospheres of planets such as Saturn and Jupiter can get their energy from only two places: the sun or the internal heating. The challenge has been coming up with ways to use the data so that we can tell the difference."

Cassini was launched in October 1997 with the European Space Agency Huygens Probe to explore the Saturn system. The new study was possible because Cassini has been in Orbit around Saturn for long time and has produced images from 2005 through 2012 providing data required to study the patterns that change from the day to day alterations in climate.

According to sources, Carolyn Porco, imaging team lead, based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo said, "Understanding what drives the meteorology on Saturn, and in general on gaseous planets, has been one of our cardinal goals since the inception of the Cassini mission.  It is very gratifying to see that we're finally coming to understand those atmospheric processes that make Earth similar to, and also different from, other planets."

A series of jet streams cuts the face of Saturn making it visible to the human eye and also at altitudes detectable to the near-infrared filters of Cassini's cameras. While most blow eastward, some blow westward. Jet streams occur on Saturn in places where the temperature varies significantly from one latitude to another.

Follow-up to results published in 2007, this new study used automated cloud tracking software to analyze the movements and speeds of clouds. 

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