NASA: Rare, enormous gas storm detected on Saturn

These red, orange and green clouds on Saturn represent the tail end of a 2010/11 massive storm.

Story highlights

  • The storm, first detected in 2010, let out something of a cosmic burp
  • If on Earth, it would cover North America top to bottom and wrap the globe many times
  • The storm also led to a drastic change in the ringed planet

NASA says the Cassini spacecraft recorded the aftermath of a massive storm on Saturn that let out an "unprecedented belch of energy."

Not only was the size of the storm unusual, but what the storm was made of left scientists puzzled.

The source of the cosmic burp, which rapidly changed the atmosphere's temperature, was ethylene gas, an odorless, colorless gas that has rarely been observed on Saturn, NASA said.

"This temperature spike is so extreme it's almost unbelievable," said Brigette Hesman, the study's lead author who works at Goddard. "To get a temperature change of the same scale on Earth, you'd be going from the depths of winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the height of summer in the Mojave Desert," Hesman said in a statement released by NASA.

NASA's NuStar gets first look at black hole at the center of the Milky Way

Scientists still haven't figured out from where the ethylene gas came.

By comparison, a storm of similar size on Earth would cover North America from top to bottom and wrap the planet many times, researchers said.

The Cassini spacecraft first detected the disruption on December 5, 2010, and has been following it since, but researchers said the ethylene gas disruption that followed the storm was unexpected.

A storm this size happens once every 30 years, or once every Saturn year, NASA scientists said.

Launched in 1997, the Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

A full report will be published in November's issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

More news about outer space on CNN.com's Light Years blog

      CNN Recommends

    • pkg clancy north korea nuclear dreams_00002004.jpg

      North Korea nuclear dream video

      As "We are the World" plays, a video shows what looks like a nuclear attack on the U.S. Jim Clancy reports on a bizarre video from North Korea.
    • Photos: Faces of the world

      Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
    • pkg rivers uk football match fixing_00005026.jpg

      How to fix a soccer match

      Europol claims 380 soccer matches, including top level ones, were fixed - as the scandal widens, CNN's Dan Rivers looks at how it's done.
    • No Eiffel Towers, Statues of Liberties, Mt. Rushmores, Taj Mahals, Aussie koalas or Chairman Maos.

      15 biggest souvenir-buying no-no's

      It's an essential part of any trip, an activity we all take part in. Yet almost none of us are any good at it. Souvenir buying is too often an obligatory slog.