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A massive whirling vortex recently discovered over Saturn's south pole has features that are similar to hurricanes on Earth and unlike anything astronomers have seen before, a new study finds.
The polar vortex was first discovered by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 11, 2006, as it flew over the gas giant's south pole. The mass of swirling clouds took scientists by surprise.
"This is something we have never seen before," said study team leader Ulyana Dyudina of Caltech. "Before Cassini, we didn't know such a feature could exist on the poles."
Dyudina and her colleagues used more than three hours of observations of the vortex to examine its dynamics and structure. False color images of cloud heights showed a dark, red central eye similar to those at the center of terrestrial hurricanes, indicating that the upper atmosphere in the eye was nearly cloud-free.
Cassini stares deep into the swirling hurricane-like vortex at Saturn's south pole, where the vertical structure of the clouds is highlighted by shadows. Such a storm, with a well-developed eye ringed by towering clouds, is a phenomenon never before seen on another planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute