Cassini had a prime spot in a spectacular show put on by Saturn, allowing scientists analyzing data from the unmanned spacecraft a glimpse of bluish spots, which appeared in the middle of swirling clouds, indicating flashes of lightning.
TG Daily reports that this is the first time that scientists were able to see lightning on the gas giant at visible wavelengths on the planet’s sunlit side. Ulyana Dyudina, a Cassini imaging team associate based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, stated:
“We didn’t think we’d see lightning on Saturn’s day side – only its night side. The fact that Cassini was able to detect the lightning means that it was very intense.”
Scientists are also still analyzing why the lightning flashes appeared brightest in the blue filter of Cassini’s imaging camera. They believe that the lightning may either be blue, or that possibly the short exposure of the camera in the blue filter allows for the short-lived lightning to be easier to see.
CBS News reports that Dyudina furthat stated, “The fact that Cassini was able to detect the lightning means that it was very intense.” Cassini was able to spot the daytime lightning on Saturn while observing a giant storm that took place on March 6, 2011. A blue filter on Cassini’s main camera recorded the lightning flashes.
The scientists also note that the Saturn lightning spotted by Cassini apparently packs a huge punch, as an analysis of the new images showed that the energy released in the visible lightning flashes could have spiked up to 3 billion watts in one second. That means that the daytime lightning on the gas giant is on par with some of the strongest lightning flashes recorded on Earth.
Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., stated:
“As summer storm season descends upon Earth’s northern latitudes, Cassini provides us a great opportunity to see how weather plays out at different places in our solar system. Saturn’s atmosphere has been changing over the eight years Cassini has been at Saturn, and we can’t wait to see what happens next.”
The Cassini spacecraft was launched by NASA in 1997, and has been orbiting Saturn since 2006. It is in an extended mission that should last through 2017.