2,000km-wide Eye-of-Sauron MONSTER hurricane spotted on Saturn
Cassini craft spots massive swirler atop planet's north pole
Stargazing NASA scientists have snapped an image of a massive hurricane on Saturn whose vortex is 20 times larger than the average size of the eye of its earthly cousins.*
The blowy behemoth boasts an eye estimated to be over 2,000km (1,250 miles) wide, which is more than large enough to spot any troublesome hobbits heading its way.
The winds at its centre are blowing at a whopping 482km/h (330mph), almost three times as fast as Hurricane Sandy, which was clocked at 115mph (185km/h) last year.
"We did a double take when we saw this vortex because it looks so much like a hurricane on Earth," said Andrew Ingersoll, a member of the Cassini imaging team, based at the California Institute of Technology. "But there it is at Saturn, on a much larger scale, and it is somehow getting by on the small amounts of water vapor in Saturn's hydrogen atmosphere."
The Cassini spacecraft took the stunning images from a height of 260,000 miles (approx 418,000km). It first arrived at Saturn in 2004 and began orbiting the planet, beaming data and images back to earth.
The storm's photograph was captured using red and infrared wavelengths, which were then tinted with false colours to highlight the Eye-of-Sauron-like structure of the gargantuan storm.
They have no idea how long the superstorm has been brewing, although they think it is likely to be stuck at the the planet's north pole. It is thought that northwards winds blew it towards the pole, in a way that's comparable to what happens to earth-bound hurricanes.
Cassini was able to take the photographs after waiting years for sunlight to hit the poles. Saturn has a 29-year seasonal cycle, meaning winter lasts even longer than in chilly Britain. It previously caught images of an even bigger Saturn storm in 2006, which resembled the creepy all-seeing-eye familiar from American dollar bills.
The Voyager 2 spacecraft took the last sun-lit image of Saturn's pole when it sped past in 1981. ®
*According to the National Hurricane Center's Hurricane Basics guidebook (PDF), the "relatively calm, clear area" (aka the "eye") at a "typical Earth-bound" hurricane's centre is a approximately 20-40 miles (32-64km) across, while "typical" Earth hurricanes are about 300 miles (483km) in total width - although it points out that this can vary considerably.