Saturn's Hexagon

Around the north pole of Saturn, there is a persistent cloud pattern in the form of which shape?

And the answer: hexagon.    

Discovered by NASA's Voyager mission in the early 1980s, Saturn's hexagon is a six-sided cloud pattern around its north pole, with a gigantic hurricane in the center. Each side of the hexagon is almost 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles) long, which is more than the diameter of Earth.

Photo credit: NASA/ JPL/ SSI/ Lights in the Dark.

While a rainy day might cause an inconvenience here on Earth, it pales in comparison to the vast, eternal hurricane on Saturn. This hexagonal storm is 60 miles deep, and wide enough to swallow four of our Earths. Its rings are comprised of ammonia and hydrogen, swirling at over 200 miles per hour.

After glimpsing the hurricane from NASA's twin Voyager ships, a lack of sunlight around Saturn's north pole has kept the storm hidden for decades. At its great distance from the sun, it takes 30 Earth years for Saturn to make a full revolution, 15 of which are spent in near total darkness. During this period of night, astronomers were limited to infrared readings of Saturn's massive storm.

The hexagonal shape is formed by a narrow jet stream that circles the north pole. Scientists believe its unique shape is caused by friction with the slower clouds on either side of it, creating eddies that push the jet stream into a wave-like shape as it rotates. Researchers have even been able to replicate the peculiar hexagon in the lab by spinning columns of water at various speeds.

Rakesh K. Yadav, a researcher at the Harvard University Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, explains the shape this way: "Imagine we have a rubber band and we place a bunch of smaller rubber bands around it and then we just squeeze the entire thing from the outside. That central ring is going to be compressed by some inches and form some weird shape with a certain number of edges. That's basically the physics of what's happening."

Learn more about this fascinating feat of our solar system below.

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