A titanic storm wracking the atmosphere of Saturn, ringed giant planet of the outer Solar System, resulted in an "unprecedented belch of energy" and an associated super-enormous emission of ethylene gas "the origin of which is a mystery", according to NASA boffins.
"This temperature spike is so extreme it's almost unbelievable, especially in this part of Saturn's atmosphere, which typically is very stable," explains Brigette Hesman, top NASA brainbox. "To get a temperature change of the same scale on Earth, you'd be going from the depths of winter in Fairbanks, Alaska [for our UK readers - that is very cold indeed] to the height of summer in the Mojave Desert [jolly hot]."
However that last shouldn't be taken literally, as the peak temperature was only 220 Kelvin (minus 53°C or 63°F). This is positively baking, however, for the chilly outer solar system.
A NASA statement just issued succinctly sums up the analysis by Hesman and other scientists of the latest data from the space probe Cassini, in orbit around Saturn:
NASA's Cassini Sees Burp at Saturn After Large Storm
The storm in question is suitably brobdingnagian in scale:
First detected by Cassini in Saturn's northern hemisphere on Dec 5, 2010, the storm grew so large that an equivalent storm on Earth would blanket most of North America from north to south and wrap around our planet many times. This type of giant disturbance on Saturn typically occurs every 30 Earth years, or once every Saturn year.
The epic, many-times-big-enough-to-cover-the-whole-Earth megastorm gave rise to a mighty heat pulse, which imaged in infrared false colour by Cassini showed a "white spot" on Saturn fit to rival the famous Red Spot storm on Jupiter, biggest planet of the solar system.
It has now emerged, according to the latest analysis, that the storm also caused a vast eruption of the (odourless) gas ethylene.
"We've really never been able to see ethylene on Saturn before, so this was a complete surprise," said Michael Flasar, a NASA colleague of Hesman's.