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June 23, 2009

Scientific Unknowns: Saturn's Hexagon

When most people think of science, they think of a body of knowledge. Science has discovered a lot of really cool things, but what we know is just the beginning. There are lots of really cool things that we don't understand as well. Unfortunately, I think that these get overlooked too often. For that reason, I am starting weekly series of things that are on the leading edge of science. Amazing phenomena that we don't yet understand. It is the nature of science to grow. Every question we answer makes us ask many more. Someday these mysteries will be solved, but there will be many more to take their place.

When we look at planets we expect to see lots of shapes. Most planets are basically spheres. We see conical volcanoes, circular craters, and stripes of different colored clouds. One shape we don't expect to see are hexagons. Luckily, the universe is far weirder then our expectations. The clouds around Saturn's north pole have made a hexagon!

In my opinion Cassini is one of the most successful spacecraft ever. Of all the great discoveries that it has made, though, this is one of the weirdest. This picture was taken in infrared light (5 microns). This means that what you're seeing is a type of light that represents heat. It also means that you are looking beneath the top layers of clouds. The clouds you see are between 45 and 60 miles below the top layer.

The south pole of Saturn is also weird. Instead of hexagon, though, it has a cyclone system. I don't want to go too deep into this feature, but it is weird to have such a stark difference between the poles. Bob Brown, from the University of Arizona, says, "At the south pole we have what appears to be a hurricane with a giant eye, and at the north pole of Saturn we have this geometric feature, which is completely different."

Source- NASA