Mystery Of Saturn's Weird Hexagon May Have Been Solved

There's nothing else like it in the Solar System. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

I mean, just look at it. It doesn’t make any sense. Why is there a weather formation shaped like a hexagon at Saturn’s north pole? Why not a circle or, I don’t know, some irregular shape? It’s bizarre.

Scientists now think they may be a step closer to an answer though. In a paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, they describe how an eastward jet of wind moving around the gas giant planet may be the cause. Using computer-based models, they showed how its interaction with other air currents causes small perturbations, which make it follow a hexagonal shape around the planet’s north pole.

The hexagon was already known to rotate at roughly the same speed as the planet itself, and their model seems to adhere to that. Moreover, it describes how the jet is likely in the cloud level of the planet, with winds lower down maintaining the hexagonal shape. Models that suggest the jet is lower cannot account for the hexagonal shape.

"With a very simple model, we have been able to match many of the observed properties of the hexagon," study lead author Raúl Morales-Juberías, a planetary scientist at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, told Space.com.

The hexagon was first spotted by flybys of the Voyager spacecraft in 1980 and 1981, and has remained ever-present since, meaning it has persisted for more than 30 Earth years, which is more than one Saturn year, and possibly longer. It is about 32,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) across, with a vortex storm at its center. No other weather feature like it has been seen in the Solar System.

As noted in their paper, the researchers said previous studies "succeeded in reproducing some, but not all, of the hexagon’s characteristics." This latest model shows how important the winds below the cloud level are in preserving the structure of the hexagon. It is these that give the hexagon its defined shape, and also dictate its movement.

Still though, it's pretty damn weird.

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