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The US-European Cassini spacecraft has caught two huge, swirling storms in the act of merging on Saturn.
It is just the second time this has been seen, occurring as Cassini nears Saturn to start a four-year mission.

Scientists on Earth closely observed events for about a month as two 1,000 km-wide storms approached each other on a collision course.

The storms then twisted around each other in a counter-clockwise direction before merging over 19 and 20 March.

The only other time this phenomenon has been witnessed was in August 1981 when Voyager captured images of storms partially merging.

Cassini will enter orbit around Saturn when it arrives on 1 July 2004.

We don't know how rare they are, so it was really rather thrilling to capture it

Dr Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Science team leader
It will release its piggybacked Huygens probe about six months later for descent through the thick atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan.

Westward bound

The two southern hemisphere storms were observed moving west, relative to the rotation of Saturn's interior, between 22 February and 22 March.

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I've been watching this mission grow since its launch in the late 90s and this is only the beginning, we will see and get back so much more once we reach Titan. The size of the two storms and what they merged into demonstrates the difference in size between us [Earth] and Saturn. It is an event a bit like those multiple asteroid hits on Jupiter and the imact they had, what were they called...? oh Shoemaker something i think.

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