After analysing data from NASA's Cassini mission, they found that violent windstorms which can grow into bright bands that encircle the entire planet are on a natural timer that is reset by each subsequent storm.

In 140 years of telescope observations, great storms have erupted on Saturn six times.

According to the scientists from California Institute of Technology, the idea is that water vapour is heavier than the hydrogen and helium that make up the bulk of Saturn's atmosphere.

Once each giant storm dumps its huge mass of rain, the air within the clouds is left lighter than the atmosphere below.

For a time, this situation shuts off the process of convection - in which warm, moist air rises, and cool, dense air sinks - that creates new clouds and storms.

"For decades after one of these storms, the warm air in Saturn's deep atmosphere is too wet, and too dense, to rise," said Cheng Li, graduate student at California Institute of Technology.

The air above had to cool off, radiating its heat to space, before its density was greater than that of the hot, wet air below. This cooling process has taken about 30 years, and then come the storms, he explained.

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