Amateur astronomers help out the Cassini mission to Saturn

Astronomy is one of the few sciences in which amateurs can actively participate. Here’s a great example of how amateurs can help the professionals.

The Cassini probe now orbiting Saturn detected a mammoth lightning storm in Saturn’s atmosphere, which researchers at the University of Iowa have been tracking since Jan. 23. The probe could “hear” the crackling of the lightning in its radio receiver, but could not image it with its cameras.

From Science Daily :

“Since Cassini was over the night side of Saturn and in a difficult position to image clouds, amateur astronomers were asked if they had seen evidence of a storm cloud recently [UI professor Donald Gurnett said.]”

He adds that within hours, two amateurs near Paris had posted a beautiful image of a white cloud at southern latitudes on Saturn that they had obtained early on Jan. 25, at a location consistent with the source of the lightning radio emissions being observed by Cassini.

French amateurs' images of Saturnian storm
The moving white spot near the top of the planet is the storm in question. (Astronomical images typically have south facing up.)

This storm is approximately the size of the continental US, with lightning strikes thousands of times stronger than terrestrial ones. The mechanism creating the storms is similar to that on earth: heat from lower altitudes churns up clouds of water vapor and separates positive and negative electric charges. The pent up electrical energy eventually results in massive sparks.

Saturn’s size, high velocity winds and intense internal heat magnifies and prolongs the effects. The storms can last for months without abating.

More details are here at NASA’s website.
Celestron Firstscope 114EQ 114mm Reflector TelescopeCelestron Firstscope 114EQ 114mm Reflector Telescope

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