University of Iowa researchers who are listening to signals being beamed back from a spacecraft orbiting the planet Saturn have discovered a giant lightning storm. U-of-I research scientist Bill Kurth compares the sounds coming from NASA’s Cassini space probe to the snap and crackle you might hear while listening to A.M. radio during a thunderstorm here on Earth.
Kurth says those popping noises aren’t technically interference, they’re radio signals generated by lightning. Kurth says the lightning storm on Saturn has been churning since late January and it’s massive, bigger than the biggest hurricane ever recorded on Earth. He says the storm is a couple of thousand miles across, as large as the continental United States, and the lightning bolts are more than a thousand times stronger than terrestrial lightning.
Saturn is thought to be a giant ball of gas and it’s not clear if there’s a hard core. So why should we care about a storm there? Kurth says it’s important to study the weather on Saturn to better understand our own weather patterns and our ability to create accurate forecasts.
Kurth says it’s a learning process where we apply what we know about the weather on Earth to the weather on Saturn, even though it doesn’t quite work without adjustments, but it’s all part of the process. The sounds are being captured aboard the spacecraft and sent back using instruments built by the U-of-I as part of the University’s Radio and Plasma Wave Science investigation.