Gas Giants of Our Solar System

Inside the Swirling Storms of Saturn and Jupiter

By Google Arts & Culture

Mackenzie White

Our Solar System Features Eight Planets (2008-11-19) by NASA/JPLNASA

Living up to their name, gas giants boast towering, thick atmospheres and colossal physical dimensions. Orbiting the Sun far beyond the realms of terrestrial planets like Earth live our solar system’s two gas giants: Saturn and Jupiter.

Jupiter, From the collection of: NASA
Saturn, From the collection of: NASA
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Explore 3D models of the gas giants.

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Visible from Earth without a telescope, Jupiter alone is over two and a half times more massive than all the other planets combined.

It is the only planet to outrank Saturn, the second-largest planet in the solar system, which stretches nine times the width of Earth.

Galileo Spacecraft (1989-09-29)LIFE Photo Collection

Gas giants do not have solid surfaces like our planet (though solid cores likely hide deep beneath the planets’ opaque bodies).

Under Jupiter's Cloud Tops (2017-05-25) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRINASA

Instead, they are made chiefly of hydrogen and helium gas which high pressures eventually squeeze into a liquid form deep below.

Hubble’s Planetary Portrait Captures New Changes in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (2017-12-08)NASA

Jupiter’s eye-catching storm, the Great Red Spot, soars miles above the surrounding clouds, whirling and weaving pale copper and flaming orange clouds into a complex pattern. The entire storm rotates counterclockwise and seems to have been swirling for centuries.

Scientists believe the storm existed long before the first observations taken over 200 years ago, but exactly how long before remains unclear. Learn more about the storm here.

Juno and the Great Red Spot (Illustration) (2017-07-11) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Christopher GoNASA

While the storm’s past is murky, its future is clear: the spot won’t be around forever. The supersized vortex appears to be shrinking over time – once as large as Australia, it is now about the size of Texas.

Saturn, Approaching Northern Summer (2016-09-15) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science InstituteNASA

An equally spectacular storm dances through Saturn’s atmosphere at its north pole

To the human eye, the most violent storm in the solar system appears almost peaceful, its pale blue hexagon peppered with specks of gold.

Enter the Vortex ... in Psychedelic Color (2013-04-29) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSINASA

First observed by NASA Voyager and later validated by Cassini, the structure spans 20,000 miles across and has six distinct sides, each longer than the diameter of Earth. Explore more of Cassini's discoveries here.

Cassini Over the Top Illustration (2017-04-04) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

Powerful 200-mile-per-hour winds whip around a rotating central storm with an eye about fifty times larger than the average hurricane eye on Earth. 

These extraordinary features form the jet stream known as “the hexagon.”

The Greatest Saturn Portrait ...Yet (2005-02-24) by NASA/JPL/Space Science InstituteNASA

Since Voyager’s first glimpse of the hexagon sparked fascination among scientists, Saturn’s seasons have forced long waiting periods between observations. The gas giant takes nearly thirty Earth years to orbit the Sun, cloaking the raging storm in darkness for 15-year periods.

Cassini arrived during this shadowy winter, limiting its observations for eight dark years. Consequently, the massive storm remains an enigmatic feature and the subject of extensive ongoing scientific investigations.

Simulated View from Europa Surface Artist Concept (2013-08-07) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

Stamped in our night sky as small, bright dots, the solar system’s gas giants continue to surprise researchers, amaze observers, and captivate explorers. Exciting discoveries undoubtedly await as future missions commit to advancing our understanding of these alien worlds.

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