saturn not the blowhard it used to be

Unexpectedly, one of the windiest planets in our solar system has become dramatically less windy, but you’ll still need your windbreaker. Gusts near Saturn’s equator are currently blowing at speeds just over 600 miles per hour, but 20 years ago they were clocked at 1,000 miles per hour, a 40 percent decrease, report Agustin Sanchez-Lavega of the Universidad del Pais Vasco in Spain, Richard French of Wellesley College, and their colleagues in the June 5 issue of Nature. The team compared data gathered by the Voyager spacecraft in 1980-81 with Hubble Space Telescope images from recent years, and speculate that the decrease may be due to seasonal changes, or possibly shadows cast by Saturn’s rings, which would act like giant sunshades and accentuate seasonal effects. Since Saturn takes almost 30 years to orbit the sun, seasons last much longer and might have gone undetected until now.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 6/10/2003.
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