NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has taken a rather incredible set of images of Saturn and Mars, revealing the beauty of the former and a storm engulfing the latter.
The images were taken when the two planets were almost at opposition – their closest points to Earth. Saturn, snapped on June 6, was 2.2 billion kilometers (1.36 billion miles) from Earth. Mars, seen on July 18, was 59.4 million kilometers (36.9 million miles) away.
Saturn’s tilt, at 27 degrees to its orbit, means we get different views of the planet on a decadal or so cycle. At the moment we’ve got a pretty great view of it tilted towards us, as seen by these Hubble images.
“Saturn has seasonal changes caused by the planet’s 27-degree axial tilt,” said NASA. “With summer in the northern hemisphere, the atmosphere is now more active. This may be responsible for a string of bright clouds visible near the northern polar region that are the remnants of a disintegrating storm. Small, mid-latitude puffs of clouds are also visible.”
The view from Hubble is so good that we can actually see Saturn’s famous hexagonal storm at its north pole, which has been ever-present since it was first spotted by Voyager 1 on its 1981 flyby of the gas giant.
Mostly, this Hubble view of Saturn just shows us how magnificent the planet looks. It’s bright rings and gorgeous clouds are beautifully resolved by the telescope. And in a video, we can even see its clouds rotating around the planet.
Hubble’s view of Mars, meanwhile, is oddly similar – the depths of the planet are also obscured by cloud. Normally we should be able to see the surface, though, but the planet is actually engulfed in a global dust storm right now, which has put NASA’s Opportunity rover in a bit of a pickle.
“Each Martian year, moderately large dust storms cover continent-sized areas and last for weeks at a time,” said NASA. “Global dust storms – lasting for weeks or months – tend to happen during the spring and summer in the southern hemisphere, when Mars is closest to the Sun and heating is at a maximum to generate winds.”
These Hubble observations are useful, as they will let astronomers study the upper atmosphere of Mars, while spacecraft in orbit can study how the storm behaves lower down in the atmosphere. There’s still a lot we don’t know about dust storms on Mars, although we did recently work out where the planet's dust mostly comes from.
Still, these Hubble snaps should serve as a pretty good reminder of how great this orbiting telescope is. Even from millions or billions of miles away, it can get views like this. Not bad, NASA.