Image: Saturn storm
NASA / JPL / SSI
The image shows the storm as it appeared to the Cassini imaging system on Jan. 27. No lightning flashes are visible in the image. They would look like medium-sized bright spots, because the light would spread out before it reaches the cloud tops. Non-detection does not mean that the lightning is absent, however. Lightning might be too faint to stand out above background or too deep to be seen through the thick clouds.
updated 2/14/2006 3:05:04 PM ET 2006-02-14T20:05:04

Scientists are tracking the strongest lighting storm ever detected at Saturn. The storm is larger than the continental United States, with electrical activity 1,000 times stronger than the lightning on Earth.

Radio outbursts were first detected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft Jan. 23.

The storm is about 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) wide.

"It's really the only large storm on the whole planet," said Andrew Ingersoll, a member of the Cassini imaging team.

Earth-based amateur astronomers were able view Saturn's dayside with their telescopes when Cassini could not. The amateurs' images of Saturn provided the first visual confirmation of the storm.

The storm is in a region of the southern hemisphere referred to as "storm alley" by scientists because of the high level of storm activity observed there. The latitude of the new storm matches that of the "Dragon storm," which was a powerful emitter of radio noise and was imaged by Cassini in 2004. It may be a re-emergence of that storm or a new storm, scientists said.

Sunlight reflected from Saturn's rings (called "ringshine") provided illumination needed to allowing the storm and other cloud features to be seen in a new Cassini image.

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