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Beyond the Frankenstorm: Saturn’s Swirling Megastorm Is Larger Than Earth

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The colored swirls indicate the tail end of Saturn's massive storm that occurred sometime between 2010 and 2011. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science

East Coasters panicked by this weekend's oncoming Frankenstorm haven't seen anything yet. New readings from NASA's Cassini orbital spacecraft have discovered that a massive maelstrom first spotted on Saturn in 2010 was more intense than initially thought. The gigantic, swirling beast ballooned to 180,000 miles in length — many times the size of Earth — and, according to a new study, was seeing wild temperature fluctuations to the tune of 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Here, a brief guide to the ringed planet's megastorm:

How big was it?
Really, really big. To get a better idea of how vast 180,000 miles is, consider that Earth's diameter is just 7,926 miles. First spotted two years ago by amateur astronomers as a distinct white spot in Saturn's northern hemisphere, the storm grew to be larger than Earth in a few short weeks. After three months, it had wrapped completely around the planet, thanks to strong atmospheric winds. By that time, the gigantic weather anomaly had an "unprecedented temperature spike that released tons of energy, equivalent to an enormous planetary belch," says Adam Mann at Wired. By mid-2011, the superstorm began to recede and "the teeth had been taken out of it," says Phil Plait at Discover Magazine. But it still had "one surprise left in it."

What was the surprise?
Inside the giant storm was a swirling, powerful vortex — a storm within a storm. Inside the vortex, temperatures surged 150 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, a change "so extreme it's almost unbelievable," says study lead author Brigette Hesman of the University of Maryland and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "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."

So the vortex was burning hot?
Not exactly. "It's not like it was a firestorm," says Discover Magazine's Plait. The temperature was still a "chilly" -238 degrees Fahrenheit — but that's considerably warmer than Saturn's usual -364 degrees.

What was it like inside the storm?
The storm, which was the largest recorded tempest since 1903, emitted an explosive amount of ethylene, a colorless and odorless gas not typically seen on Saturn, says Wired's Mann. Inside it was likely an "odd soupy mixture," producing 100 times more ethylene than scientists thought the planet was capable of.

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The Delicious Chemistry of Sushi
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The secret to sushi's delicious taste is invisible to the human eye. Chefs spend years training to properly prepare the Japanese culinary staple, which consists of fresh fish and seasoned rice, either served together or wrapped in seaweed. At its most elemental, as the American Chemistry Society's latest Reactions video explains below, the bite-sized morsels contain an assortment of compounds that, together, combine to form a perfectly balanced mix of savory and sweet. They include mannitol, iodine, and bromophenol, all of which provide a distinctive tang; and glutamate, which adds a savory, rich umami flavor (and turns into MSG when it's combined with a sodium ion).

Take a bite of science, and learn more fun facts about the Japanese culinary staple's long history and unique preparation method by watching the video below.

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Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder
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Fossilized Poop Shows Some Herbivorous Dinosaurs Loved a Good Crab Dinner
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Lead author Karen Chin of the University of Colorado Boulder
Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists can learn a lot about the prehistoric world through very, very old poop. Just recently, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Kent State University studying fossilized dinosaur poop discovered that some herbivores weren't as picky about their diets as we thought. Though they mostly ate plants, large dinosaurs living in Utah 75 million years ago also seem to have eaten prehistoric crustaceans, as Nature News reports.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, finds that large dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period seem to have eaten crabs, along with rotting wood, based on the content of their coprolites (the more scientific term for prehistoric No. 2). The fossilized remains of dinos' bathroom activities were found in the Kaiparowits rock formation in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a known hotspot for pristine Late Cretaceous fossils.

"The large size and woody contents" of the poop suggest that they were created by dinosaurs that were well-equipped to process fiber in their diets, as the study puts it, leading the researchers to suggest that the poop came from big herbivores like hadrosaurs, whose remains have been found in the area before.

Close up scientific images of evidence of crustaceans in fossilized poop.
Chin et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

While scientists previously thought that plant-eating dinosaurs like hadrosaurs only ate vegetation, these findings suggest otherwise. "The diet represented by the Kaiparowits coprolites would have provided a woody stew of plant, fungal, and invertebrate tissues," the researchers write, including crabs (Yum.) These crustaceans would have provided a big source of calcium for the dinosaurs, and the other invertebrates that no doubt lived in the rotting logs would have provided a good source of protein.

But they probably didn't eat the rotting wood all year, instead munching on dead trees seasonally or during times when other food sources weren’t available. Another hypothesis is that these "ancient fecal producers," as the researchers call them, might have eaten the rotting wood, with its calcium-rich crustaceans and protein-laden invertebrates, during egg production, similar to the feeding patterns of modern birds during breeding season.

Regardless of the reason, these findings could change how we think about what big dinosaurs ate.

[h/t Nature News]

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