Cassini Finds Mysterious New Aurora on Saturn
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Energetic particles, crashing into the upper atmosphere cause the aurora, shown in blue, to glow brightly at 4 microns (six times the wavelength visible to the human eye). The image shows both a bright ring, as seen from Earth, as well as an example of bright auroral emission within the polar cap that had been undetected until the advent of Cassini. This aurora, which defies past predictions of what was expected, has been observed to grow even brighter than is shown here. Silhouetted by the glow (cast here to the color red) of the hot interior of Saturn (clearly seen at a wavelength of 5 microns, or seven times the wavelength visible to the human eye) are the clouds and haze that underlie this auroral region. For a similar view of the region beneath the aurora see Saturn's North Pole Hexagon and Aurora.
This image is a composite captured with Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer.
The aurora image was taken in the near-infrared on Nov. 10, 2006, from a distance of 1,061,000 kilometers (659,000 miles), with a phase angle of 157 degrees and a sub-spacecraft planetocentric latitude of 52 degrees north. The image of the clouds was obtained by Cassini on June 15, 2008, from a distance of 602,000 kilometers (374,000 miles) and a sub-spacecraft planetocentric latitude of 73 degrees north.
"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."
The new views are available online at: http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov.
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.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team is based at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Carolina Martinez 818-354-9382
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.