Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have managed to capture images of flickering auroral lights at Saturn’s north pole, revealing unprecedented details in the choreography of the dancing glow on the ringed planet of the solar system.
The images, taken from Hubble’s perspective in orbit around the Earth, provide a comprehensive look at Saturn’s stormy aurorae, whose changing patterns remain a mystery in planetary science. According to NASA, the images taken by Hubble’s super-sensitive Advanced Camera for Surveys capture moments when Saturn’s magnetic field is affected by bursts of particles streaming out from the sun.
Planets, including Mercury, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, Earth and Saturn, have a long, comet-like magnetic tail known as a magnetotail, which is typically found around planets with a magnetic field, caused by a rotating core of magnetic elements.
Astronomical objects have an area of space around them called magnetosphere, in which charged particles are controlled by that object’s magnetic field. The magnetosphere is compressed on the side of the sun, while it extends far beyond the object on the other side. It is this extended region of the magnetosphere that is known as the magnetotail.
In case of Saturn, when bursts of particles from the sun hit the planet, its magnetotail collapses and later reconfigures itself, an event that subsequently reflects in the dynamics of Saturn’s aurorae. Some of the bursts of light seen shooting around Saturn’s polar regions can travel at speeds over three times faster than the gas giant’s rotation, according to scientists.
The new images are part of a joint observation campaign between Hubble and NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is currently in orbit around Saturn. Both Hubble and Cassini managed to capture a 360-degree view of the planet’s aurorae at both the north and south poles, while the latter also used optical imaging to more closely observe the the rainbow of colors seen in Saturn’s light shows.
“On Earth, we see green curtains of light with flaming scarlet tops. Cassini’s imaging cameras reveal similar auroral veils on Saturn that are red at the bottom and violet at the top,” NASA said in a statement.