Cassini Finds Mysterious New Aurora on Saturn

November 12, 2008
This image of the northern polar region of Saturn shows both the aurora and underlying atmosphere, seen at two different wavelengths of infrared light as captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

(PhysOrg.com) -- Saturn has its own unique brand of aurora that lights up the polar cap, unlike any other planetary aurora known in our solar system. This odd aurora revealed itself to one of the infrared instruments on NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

"We've never seen an aurora like this elsewhere," said Tom Stallard, a scientist working with Cassini data at the University of Leicester, England. Stallard is lead author of a paper that appears in the Nov. 13 issue of the journal Nature. "It's not just a ring of auroras like those we've seen at Jupiter or Earth. This aurora covers an enormous area across the pole. Our current ideas on what forms Saturn's aurora predict that this region should be empty, so finding such a bright aurora here is a fantastic surprise."

Auroras are caused by charged particles streaming along the magnetic field lines of a planet into its atmosphere. Particles from the sun cause Earth's auroras. Many, but not all, of the auroras at Jupiter and Saturn are caused by particles trapped within the magnetic environments of those planets.

Jupiter's main auroral ring, caused by interactions internal to Jupiter's magnetic environment, is constant in size. Saturn's main aurora, which is caused by the solar wind, changes size dramatically as the wind varies. The newly observed aurora at Saturn, however, doesn't fit into either category.

"Saturn's unique auroral features are telling us there is something special and unforeseen about this planet's magnetosphere and the way it interacts with the solar wind and the planet's atmosphere," said Nick Achilleos, Cassini scientist on the Cassini magnetometer team at the University College London. "Trying to explain its origin will no doubt lead us to physics which uniquely operates in the environment of Saturn."

The new infrared aurora appears in a region hidden from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which has provided views of Saturn's ultraviolet aurora. Cassini observed it when the spacecraft flew near Saturn's polar region. In infrared light, the aurora sometimes fills the region from around 82 degrees north all the way over the pole. This new aurora is also constantly changing, even disappearing within a 45 minute-period.

Provided by NASA

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holmstar
3 / 5 (1) Nov 12, 2008
Dude, seriously, am I crazy for loving this type of stuff so much?!?!? I love space science so much. It is so amazing to me and really blows your mind if you stop to think about it. I LOVE THIS STUFF! Good Article, keep them coming.
Aaron, COO-OOTWO @ www.ootwo.com


Dude, seriouly, chill out. Did you just hear yesterday that this thing called "science" exists?
alanborky
5 / 5 (3) Nov 12, 2008
What strikes me about this image is how the 'unexpected' aurora clearly reflects the shape of, and thus may be dependent on, if not a direct product of, the hexagon directly below it.

I'm slightly surprised the article doesn't address this apparent relationship.
barakn
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 12, 2008
Dude, seriously, am I crazy for loving this type of stuff so much?!?!? I love space science so much. It is so amazing to me and really blows your mind if you stop to think about it. I LOVE THIS STUFF! Good Article, keep them coming.
Aaron, COO-OOTWO @ www.ootwot.com


Dude, seriouly, chill out. Did you just hear yesterday that this thing called "science" exists?

Yes, but the whole point was to write something short that took very little thought to put together and then add the usual spam link at the end.
General_Haberdashery
not rated yet Nov 12, 2008
I second the hexagon remark, random space hexagons deserve more research.

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