Saturn's north polar cyclone and hexagon at depth revealed by Cassini/VIMS

Kevin H. Baines, Thomas W. Momary, Leigh N. Fletcher, Adam P. Showman, Maarten Roos-Serote, Robert H. Brown, Bonnie J. Buratti, Roger N. Clark, Philip D. Nicholson

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A high-speed cyclonic vortex centered on the north pole of Saturn has been revealed by the visual-infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) onboard the Cassini-Huygens Orbiter, thus showing that the tropospheres of both poles of Saturn are occupied by cyclonic vortices with winds exceeding 135 m/s. High-spatial-resolution (~200 km per pixel) images acquired predominantly under night-time conditions during Saturn's polar winter-using a thermal wavelength of 5.1 μm to obtain time-lapsed imagery of discrete, deep-seated (>2.1-bar) cloud features viewed in silhouette against Saturn's internally generated thermal glow-show a classic cyclonic structure, with prograde winds exceeding 135 m/s at its maximum near 88.3° (planetocentric) latitude, and decreasing to <30 m/s at 89.7° near the vortex center and<20 m/s at 80.5°. High-speed winds, exceeding 125 m/s, were also measured for cloud features at depth near 76° (planetocentric) latitude within the polar hexagon consistent with the idea that the hexagon itself, which remains nearly stationary, is a westward (retrograde) propagating Rossby wave - as proposed by Allison (1990, Science 247, 1061-1063) - with a maximum wave speed near 2-bars pressure of ~125 m/s. Winds are ~25 m/s stronger than observed by Voyager, suggesting temporal variability. Images acquired of one side of the hexagon in dawn conditions as the polar winter wanes shows the hexagon is still visible in reflected sunlight nearly 28 years since its discovery, that a similar 3-lane structure is observed in reflected and thermal light, and that the cloudtops may be typically lower in the hexagon than in nearby discrete cloud features outside of it. Clouds are well-correlated in visible and 5.1 μm images, indicating little windshear above the ~2-bar level. The polar cyclone is similar in size and shape to its counterpart at the south pole; a primary difference is the presence of a small (<600 km in diameter) nearly pole-centered cloud, perhaps indicative of localized upwelling. Many dozens of discrete, circular cloud features dot the polar region, with typical diameters of 300-700 km. Equatorward of 87.8°N, their compact nature in the high-wind polar environment suggests that vertical shear in horizontal winds may be modest on 1000 km scales. These circular clouds may be anticyclonic vortices produced by baroclinic instabilities, barotropic instabilities, moist convection or other processes. The existence of cyclones at both poles of Saturn indicates that cyclonic circulation may be an important dynamical style in planets with significant atmospheres.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1671-1681
Number of pages11
JournalPlanetary and Space Science
Issue number14-15
StatePublished - Dec 2009


  • Atmospheric dynamics
  • Cassini-Huygens
  • Polar cyclone
  • Saturn
  • Saturn clouds
  • Visual-infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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