Couldn't find element LayerAd

Error finding content

Saturn's Strange Hexagon - Windows to the Universe

Shop Windows to the Universe

Our Glaciers: Then and Now activity kit helps you see the changes taking place in glaciers around the world. See all our activity kits and classroom activities.
This picture shows the strange hexagon on Saturn. The hexagon is near Saturn's north pole. This picture shows infrared "light". The Cassini spacecraft took this picture in October 2006. Scientist think the hexagon might be some sort of wave in Saturn's atmosphere.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

Saturn's Strange Hexagon

Astronomers have discovered a strange shape in Saturn's atmosphere. The shape is a hexagon. The hexagon is near Saturn's North Pole. Scientists aren't quite sure why Saturn has the hexagon shape in its atmosphere.

The Cassini spacecraft flew over Saturn's North Pole in October and November 2006. It gave astronomers their first good look at Saturn's poles. Cassini took pictures of the hexagon. The pictures show infrared "light" coming up from inside of Saturn, which is hot inside. Now scientists are trying to figure out what causes the hexagon.

This isn't the first time astronomers have seen the hexagon. The Voyager spacecraft was the first to spot it in the 1980s. The Hubble Space Telescope also took pictures of it. The pictures from Voyager and Hubble were not very clear, though, because they weren't looking straight down on the pole the way Cassini did. The older pictures do tell us that the hexagon has been around for at least 20 years, though.

Because the pictures from Cassini were taken with infrared "light", they let us see through Saturn's top layer of clouds to a place deeper down in the planet's atmosphere. The hexagon is actually about 75 kilometers (47 miles) below Saturn's top layer of clouds that we normally see. In the picture on this page, light colored areas are places where Saturn's atmosphere is mostly clear, and we can see lots of heat (infrared "light") coming up from inside Saturn. Darker places on the picture are actually the shadows of clouds. The clouds block the infrared "light". These clouds are about 75 to 100 kilometers (47-62 miles) lower in Saturn's atmosphere than the top layer of clouds we normally see with visible light.

So what makes the hexagon? Scientists aren't really sure yet. They think it is very odd. One theory is that it is some sort of wave in Saturn's atmosphere. Scientists hope that more data from Cassini may help them solve this mystery. Stay tuned!

Last modified January 20, 2009 by Randy Russell.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes books on science education, ranging from evolution, classroom research, and the need for science and math literacy!

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

An Overview of Saturn's Atmosphere

The dramatic appearance of Saturn stems mainly from the spectacular rings. The atmosphere looks much less dramatic. The clouds of Saturn are much less colorful than those of Jupiter. This is because the...more

The Poles of Saturn and Its Moons

There's a lot of strange and interesting stuff going on at both the North and South Poles of Saturn. Two of Saturn's moons also have interesting polar regions. Let's take a look! The atmosphere and clouds...more

Cassini

A spacecraft named Cassini will study the planet Saturn for several years. Cassini blasted off from Earth in October 1997. After flying past Venus, Earth, and Jupiter, Cassini finally arrived at Saturn...more

Voyager

The rare arrangement of planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in the 1980's made it possible for the Voyager spacecrafts to visit them over a 12 year span instead of the normal 30. They used gravity...more

Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was one of the most important exploration tools of the past two decades, and will continue to serve as a great resource well into the new millennium. The HST found numerous...more

An Overview of Motions in Saturn's Atmosphere

The most important motions in the atmosphere are winds. The major winds in Saturn's atmosphere are the zonal winds which are made of zones and belts. Zones are high pressure systems and belts are low pressure...more

Saturn's Belts and Zones

The striped cloud bands on Saturn, like Jupiter, are divided into belts and zones. In a belt, the wind flows very strongly in one direction only. In a zone, the wind flows very strongly in exactly the...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF