Amateurs monitor storm on Saturn

NASA scientists have acknowledged the value of amateur observations in supporting their exploration of Saturn. They are using studies by hobbyists to help keep track of a powerful thunderstorm that has been raging for five months on the ringed planet.

The storm, thousands of miles wide, produces lightning bolts 10,000 times more powerful than those here on Earth. The spaceprobe Cassini, whose mission was extended last month, has been taking colour pictures of the storm, like those shown here.

But when Cassini is on the other side of Saturn, the scientists have turned to modern CCD images – taken with exotic versions of the webcam – to keep up with developments.

Georg Fischer, of the University of Iowa, has been studying electrostatic discharges from the storm which produce radio signals. He said: “Since Cassini’s camera cannot track the storm every day, the amateur data are invaluable. I am in continuous contact with astronomers from around the world.”

The new storm, first detected on November 27 last year, is raging in Saturn’s southern hemisphere, in a region that has been dubbed Storm Alley by mission scientists, following previous bad weather there. You can listen to a previous storm here.

Fischer said: “The electrostatic radio outbursts have waxed and waned in intensity for five months now. We saw similar storms in 2004 and 2006 that each lasted for nearly a month, but this storm is longer-lived by far. And it appeared after nearly two years during which we did not detect any electrical storm activity from Saturn.”

Ulyana Dyudina, of the Cassini imaging team, said: “In order to see the storm, the imaging cameras have to be looking at the right place at the right time, and whenever our cameras see the storm, the radio outbursts are there.”

The scientists hope their studies will help them learn what causes the amazing storms. They have also been fascinated by a monster storm over Saturn’s south pole.