Friday, April 30, 2010

Cassini and Amateurs Chase Storm on Saturn

With the help of amateur astronomers, the composite infrared spectrometer instrument aboard NASA's Cassini spacecraft has taken its first look at a massive blizzard in Saturn's atmosphere. The instrument collected the most detailed data to date of temperatures and gas distribution in that planet's storms.

The data showed a large, turbulent storm, dredging up loads of material from the deep atmosphere and covering an area at least five times larger than the biggest blizzard in this year's Washington, D.C.-area storm front nicknamed "Snowmageddon."

"We were so excited to get a heads-up from the amateurs," said Gordon Bjoraker, a composite infrared spectrometer team member based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Normally, he said, "Data from the storm cell would have been averaged out."

Cassini's radio and plasma wave instrument and imaging cameras have been tracking thunder and lightning storms on Saturn for years in a band around Saturn's mid-latitudes nicknamed "storm alley." But storms can come and go on a time scale of weeks, while Cassini's imaging and spectrometer observations have to be locked in place months in advance.