Just when you thought our planet had enough doomsday problems to grapple with, Saturn went ahead and changed colors on us. Specifically, Saturn’s north pole—a hexagonal vortex that Gizmodo claims could swallow our planet whole. While no one knows for certain how Saturn’s north pole came to be this way, scientists have been tracking its shifting hue thanks to the Cassini Imaging Team, a probe that has been circling the planet since 2004.
Based on images beamed back from Cassini, the hexagonal pole was blue back in 2012; since then it’s progressed into bright gold. Based on the images, which were released by the Cassini Imaging Team last week, scientists theorize that accumulating haze particles could be sparking this startling change. While it may seem bizarre for a vast swath of a planet to change colors so rapidly, there was a time between 1995 and 2009 when Saturn’s north pole grew increasingly dark. This, scientists deduced, was a result of diminishing photochemical reactions (i.e., less sunlight reached the planet to react with the atmosphere’s molecular components).
Now that the northern pole is tipping back toward the sun, increasing amounts of light are igniting more of these photochemical reactions, and in turn, producing more bright gold haze. As NASA put it in a statement released on Friday,
“The color change is thought to be an effect of Saturn's seasons. In particular, the change from a bluish color to a more golden hue may be due to the increased production of photochemical hazes in the atmosphere as the north pole approaches summer solstice in May 2017.”
As alarming as these color changes may seem from our tiny marble, we may just be getting a better feel for Saturn’s natural seasonal cycles—something that will take decades, maybe centuries to understand completely. In the meantime, we can appreciate Saturn as the biggest mood ring in our solar system.
All images via NASA.