Saturn’s Hexagon

Above is a short clip from a documentary I saw on the planet Saturn, well the US version anyway.

Obviously Saturn’s most famous and predominant feature, its rings, are very fascinating. What they comprise of, pondering their possible origins (moon collisions!), how long they’ll last, etc., etc. All really interesting stuff, but the thing which most intrigued me in the documentary I saw the other night–so much so that I felt compelled to share it here–was a feature of the planet I hadn’t been aware of prior to watching the film.

In 1979 scientists, via Voyager, discovered a perfect, stationary hexagon the size of four Earths on Saturn’s north pole. Then in 2006 the Cassini-Huygens craft, using superior imaging technology, confirmed it was still there. It’s origins, what exactly the hexagon is, how it’s formed, remain somewhat of a mystery apparently. However, I’m sure I’m not going too far out on a limb by subscribing to one theory I’ve encountered; that it’s maybe got something to do with Saturn’s rotational forces around the axis, and how that effects/reacts with the planet’s storm/weather patterns with regards particular angles and velocities of jet streams. I’ve posted the video of the Oxford university experiment I’m referring to at the bottom of this post, along with the info pertaining to it. There are major gaps in the experimenters’ fledgling theory, like what produces the jet streams with the exact angular velocity required to create the astonishing effect? and why only the north pole? Has it also something to do with the convergence of magnetic fields at the polar region? Theoretical conundrums aside (well, included actually. The mystery of it all, the hidden workings behind it, is perhaps the main attraction), aesthetically speaking, the perfect, six-sided giant polygon of Saturn, and its miniature re-recreated counterpart in the lab experiment, are a treat for the eyes and the mind.

Physicists Ana Claudia Barbosa Aguiar and Peter Read of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom performed the experiment depicted in this video. Using a 30-liter cylinder of water placed on a slowly rotating table they created an artificial “jet stream” by employing a much smaller and much faster rotating ring inside the main cylinder. By introducing fluorescent dye into the artificial “jet stream” they discovered that stable eddies formed and became stronger over time eventually forming stable regular polygonal shapes with each eddy located at a vertex. Also, in varying the rate of rotation of the large cylinder with respect to the small ring, they discovered that the larger the relative difference in rotation rates the less sides the resulting polygon had.

The experimenters postulate that a similar process is occurring on Saturn where the cylinder would be analogous to Saturn’s rotation and the “jet stream” would be analogous to an actual jet stream with an angular velocity greater than that of the planet’s rotation. It is still unknown what exactly would generate such a jet stream and especially one at just the right angular velocity to produce a hexagon.

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1 Comment

  1. That’s insane man, nice post 😉


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