Bad Astronomy

Saturn rages from a billion kilometers away

[In a weird coincidence, I wrote this post up mere hours before this news story on the same topic came out at JPL.]

With all the stunning images and animations coming from the Cassini probe, it’s easy to forget that some pretty cool stuff can be seen from Earth, too. Amateur astronomer Emil Kraaikamp sent me this animation he made of Saturn taken with his 25 cm (10”) telescope in The Netherlands. Keep your eyes on the upper half of Saturn, above the rings.

See the white spot? That’s actually a huge storm… and by “huge”, I mean about the same size as the Earth! I usually think of Jupiter as the stormy planet, but Saturn has its share as well. A lot of the time, these storms are discovered here on Earth by amateur astronomers, who spend more time looking at planets globally, as opposed to professional astronomers who aren’t always observing every planet all the time. Last year, a “storm” seen on Jupiter by an amateur turned out to be the impact cloud from a collision by an asteroid or comet!

Here’s one of the images Emil used in his animation:

You can see two moons, the rings (and the dark Cassini Division, a gap in the rings), banding on the planet itself, and of course the storm. Note that when he took these shots, Saturn was 1.3 billion km (almost 800 million miles) away! Astronomy is one of the very few sciences where amateurs – and by that, I mean people who aren’t paid to do it as a career – still make an incredibly important, and even critical contribution. With observations like Emil’s, you can see why.