Saturn’s winds are variable

A team of astrophysicists at the University of the Basque Country has detected, for the first time ever, changes in Saturn’s winds. The research has merited front page coverage in the scientific magazine, Nature.

The winds blowing around Saturn and Jupiter are special. Unlike those of the rest of the planets, these move in an eastwards direction and are ten times stronger than the earth’s winds. On our planet it is solar radiation which governs the winds, but on the distant planets it is believed that there is another energy source, although astrophysicists have not identified it as yet. According to some theories, the wind originates in the centre of the planet and brings with it heat from there.

The tem of astrophysicists at the University of the Basque Country (EHU), together with another from Wellesley College in Massachussets, have analysed the images provide by the Hubble telescope in order to understand the behaviour of Saturn’s winds. During the analysis, an unexpected discovery was made – the velocity of the winds from 1996 to 2002 turned out to be half of that in the 1980-81 period. Agustin Sanchez-Lavega, Santiago Perez-Hoyos, Jose Felix Rojas and Ricardo Hueso have taken part in this research, amongst others. .

The speed of the winds had been believed to be stable

The speed of the winds of Jupiter and Saturn were first measured in the 80s by Voyager. Since then, it has been thought that Jupiter’s winds were stable, although nothing certain was known about those circulating Saturn. Now, thanks to the work of carried out by researchers at the EHU, it is known that the winds at the equator have changed and, moreover, the astrophysicists have concluded, these winds are created in the upper part of the atmosphere.

In order to check all these conclusions, the Cassini Huygens mission, which will reach Saturn in 2004 will be of vital importance. This mission, led by European and US space agencies, will take high-resolution images of de Saturn’s atmosphere and, perhaps then, clear up the mysteries of the winds.

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Elhuyar Fundazioa

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Garazi Andonegi Basque research

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