AMU Editor's Pick Original Space

Exploring Saturn's Mysterious North Pole Hexagon

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InSpaceNews

The peerless Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí once proclaimed there are no straight lines in nature. Born in the 1850s, he clearly lived in a time when Saturn’s mysteries were still somewhat enigmatic. Gaudí is proof that intellectual brilliance is no guarantee against being dead wrong.

Since the Voyager 2 mission first discovered it in 1981, scientists have been baffled by the near-perfect hexagon at Saturn’s north pole.

But how did such a magnificent geometric pattern end up on the sixth planet from the sun?

A Dynamic Weather System

Some astrophysicists claim that humans invented mathematics. Others state that math always existed in the universe and humans simply discovered it. Given that the geometry of the six-sided polygon, or hexagon, was first discovered by the ancient Greeks perhaps while admiring a beehive honeycomb, it’s plausible to believe that math has always existed in nature.

Each side of the hexagon at Saturn’s north pole measures 9,000 miles long, larger than the diameter of the Earth. At its center, sitting atop the north pole, a massive hurricane churns away with an eye 50 times larger than the average hurricane eye on Earth.

New studies of data from the Cassini probe indicate that the hexagon is a massive tower of air reaching hundreds of miles above the clouds. Unfortunately, one year on Saturn spans 30 earth years, so determining if the hexagon is simply a seasonal pattern is difficult.

According to Andrew Ingersoll of the Cassini Imaging Team, “The hexagon is just a current of air, and weather features out there that share similarities to this are notoriously turbulent and unstable. A hurricane on Earth typically lasts a week, but this has been here for decades — and who knows — maybe centuries.”

Pictured above, this colorful view from NASA’s Cassini mission is the highest-resolution view of the unique six-sided jet stream at Saturn’s north pole known as “the hexagon.” The eight frames of the movie were captured over 10 hours on December 10, 2012. Each of the eight frames consists of 16 map-projected images (four per color filter, and four filters per frame) so the film combines data from 128 images total. GIF courtesy NASA/ JPL.

Saturn’s south pole has no hexagon, either at cloud level or above. Cassini scientists state that there is a fundamental asymmetry between Saturn’s poles that we don’t yet understand. Or it could mean that the north polar vortex was still developing in our last observations and kept doing so after Cassini’s demise.

The Cassini mission came to an end in September 2017 by plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere. There are no other spacecraft that can provide such detailed images. Recently, scientists turned Hubble’s gaze toward Saturn and captured an endearing family portrait of Saturn and some of its moons.

Courtesy NASA/ JPL

In its simplest terms, the hexagon on Saturn is a six-sided jet stream with atmospheric gases moving at 200 mph.

Such a sight would have been awe-inspiring to Antoni Gaudí, just as it was to Voyager scientists in 1981.

This mystery of the hexagon may be a mystery no more, but Saturn has many more secrets to reveal.

Interested in a career in space science?

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Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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