Hampton University
HU Professor Studies Super Storm Across the Solar System
02/26/2013 - #51

A monstrous thunderstorm on Saturn has recently taken the term super storm to the next level. A new observation of Saturn made by NASA’s Cassini mission shows the most intense thunderstorm ever observed in the universe.

Dr. Kunio Sayanagi, HU assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and a Cassini imaging team associate, is the lead author of a new paper in the journal Icarus that provides the most detailed view on the life and death of a monstrous thunder-and-lightning storm on Saturn. Sayanagi and the Cassini team are studying the extreme weather events on Saturn with the hope of applying their lessons to weather on Earth. 

As a member of the Cassini imaging team, Sayanagi is among the first to receive images from the probe’s two high-resolution visible light cameras. Sayanagi analyzes the dayside of Saturn.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, and, to date, it is the first and only mission to orbit Saturn.  The Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004. 

“Similar to how huge storms here on Earth are affected by temperature and moisture distribution, this storm on Saturn was too,” stated Sayanagi, who earned a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Arizona and held research positions at various institutions including the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he became a part of the Cassini team. “This thunder-and-lightning storm on Saturn was a beast. The storm maintained its intensity for an unusually long time.”

The storm, which lasted for 267 days, was the longest running of the massive storms that appear to break out in Saturn's northern hemisphere once every Saturnian year (30 Earth years).

“We are interested in extreme weather because, if you want to test the limits of your knowledge, you study the most extreme cases,” said Sayanagi. “The same physics that governs the weather on Earth also controls the weather on Saturn.”

Earth's hurricanes feed off the energy of warm water and leave a cold-water wake. The storm on Saturn also feasted off warm air. The storm was first detected on Dec. 5, 2010. Usually, terrestrial storms encounter topographic features like mountains first and expend themselves. But Saturn has no land to stop its hurricanes. The turbulent storm head was able to chomp all the way around the planet until it ran into the vortex of the storm in June 2011 that the massive storm faded away. Why the encounter would shut down the storm is still a mystery.

At HU, Sayanagi’s research includes his work with Cassini as well as research focused on modeling of jet streams on Jupiter and Saturn, for which he was awarded grants totaling $400,000 from NASA and the National Science Foundation. 

To view additional mission news from NASA's Cassini, click here.

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