Cassini spacecraft finds mysterious new aurora on Saturn
U.S. space agency
NASA reported on Wednesday that Cassini spacecraft found Saturn has its own
unique brand of aurora that lights up the polar cap, unlike any other planetary
aurora known in the solar system, according to Xinhua.
This odd aurora revealed itself to one of the infrared instruments on Cassini. "We've never seen an aurora like this elsewhere," said Tom Stallard, a scientist working with Cassini data at the University of Leicester, England. He is the 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," said Stallard.
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, scientist at University College London.
"Trying to explain its origin will no doubt lead us to physics which uniquely operates in the environment of Saturn," said Achilleos.
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.