Saturn's amazing aurora

Hubble images of Saturn’s aurora show striking similarities to the Earth’s

Credit: NASA, ESA, Jonathan Nichols (University of Leicester).

The Hubble images show the ultraviolet aurora in unprecedented detail.

Stunning new images of Saturn’s aurorae have been taken by a team of researchers at the University of Leicester. The pictures capture the planet’s brilliant light show as it is bombarded by the Sun’s charged particles, and show that the aurorae of the ringed planet and Earth are created by a very similar processes.

The images, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, give support to the theory that the auroral displays are caused by the collapse of Saturn’s magnetotail, the trail of charged gas that’s left behind by a planet’s magnetic field as it moves through space.

When battered by the solar wind this tail can collapse causing disturbances to the planet’s magnetic field. It’s these fluctuations that cause the amazing aurorae observed by Hubble. A similar process causes the Northern and Southern Lights here on Earth.   

“We have always suspected this was what also happens on Saturn,” says Dr Jonathan Nichols of the University of Leicester who led the observations. “This evidence really strengthens the argument.”

Saturn’s displays are not quite the same as those seen on Earth, however. The composition of Saturn’s atmosphere means the aurorae are brightest at ultraviolet wavelengths, making them invisible to the human eye though an observer would see the occasional flash of red. Hubble caught the sight between April and May 2013 with its sensitive Advanced Camera for Surveys. The observations are part of a three year long campaign, hoping to gather information about Saturn’s auroral activity in unprecedented detail.

It appears that the light show the team caught was a particularly energetic one, with bursts of lights racing around the planet three times faster than the gas giant rotates.

“These images are spectacular and dynamic, because the auroras are jumping around so quickly,” says Nichols. “Our observations show a burst of auroras that are moving very, very quickly across the polar region of the planet. We can see that the magnetotail is undergoing huge turmoil and reconfiguration, caused by buffering from solar wind. It’s the smoking gun that shows us that the tail is collapsing.”


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