Saturn's heat rash

By Phil Plait | November 12, 2008 2:48 pm

I always say that (besides Earth) Saturn is the most beautiful planet in the solar system.

I may have to revise that opinion. At least in this case. It looks infected!*

Cassini spies an aurora on Saturn

That’s a Cassini image, taken in the infrared, showing a weird aurora at the ringed planet’s north pole. We’ve been observing the aurorae on Saturn for years (I remember when we got UV images of it with Hubble, about ten years ago), but nothing like this one. In general, aurorae change shape as the magnetic field of a planet fluctuates and interacts with the Sun’s solar wind. But this one doesn’t really do that. It also has been seen to fill the entire polar region of Saturn’s equivalent of the Arctic.

In the image, light at 4 microns wavelength (roughly six times longer than the human eye can see) is blue, and light at 5 microns is in red. The latter shows warm gases deep in Saturn’s atmosphere, and you can see the usual storms and other features. Usually aurorae form a ring pattern, but you can see patches of auroral emission inside the main ring, which is unexpected.

So what’s causing this weirdness? We don’t know. There is an unusual interaction going on between the Sun’s constant wind of subatomic particles, Saturn’s magnetic field, and the atmosphere of the planet. I don’t have a clue what that could be since this isn’t my field (haha, a little magnetic joke there), but we know that the weather at Saturn’s poles is a little strange. Maybe that has something to do with it. Beats me.

I’m also sure the pseudoscientists will have a field day with this one, conjuring all up kinds of nonsense to explain this away. Their chatter will die, as it always does, when science fills the gaps in our current knowledge. Well, it will mostly die; as long as there are credulous people there will always be hucksters ready to pick their pockets.

But just look at that very odd and vaguely disturbing picture of Saturn’s boreal regions, and remember that nature is odd, nature is surprising, and nature is baffling. We still don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle… but that doesn’t mean we have to cut up what we do know to make the pieces fit. Reality will release its secrets eventually. It always does.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona


<font size="-2"?*…or have I been affected because I just finished a Scott Sigler novel?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Science, Skepticism
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Comments (18)

Links to this Post

  1. Saturn’s heat rash | Autos | November 15, 2008
  2. Saturn’s polar light show mystifies scientists | Ourker Test | November 29, 2008
  1. Darth Curt

    Anyone else see the profile of Howdy Doody? His nose and lips are pointing up at the top of it… :)

  2. Scott

    I was always partial to Jupiter as well, between the Great Red Spot and the whole king of the planets thing (easily more massive than all the other planets combined). It just appealed to me for some reason, so much so that when they started finding planets in other solar systems, I was sad (yes I know that’s completely irrational).

  3. rob

    not your field, eh?

    maxwell was close: Phil dot B = 0.

  4. wright

    Aww, Scott that may be irrational, but it’s also touching. I too grew up with the Voyager and Galileo missions, and have fond memories of the first incredible images of the Jovian moons… My favorite was Io, with its tortured and dynamic surface. There is definitely nothing like that first taste of how amazing the universe is.

    But the discovery of extrasolar planetary systems fills me with wonder and excitement again: roaster gas giants, “super” earths, brown dwarfs… And now closer to home, the aurorae of Saturn. Wonder upon wonder, worlds without end.

  5. Gary

    Since most of the auroras look like they’re forming right on top of Saturn’s crazy hexagon, could the hexagon somehow be related to Saturn’s magnetic field?

    If anyone’s not familiar with the hexagon, there’s a picture of it here:

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/media/cassini-20070327.html

  6. Remek

    And, Saturn’s magnetic poles are offset from its rotational poles, which makes this image quite strange indeed.

  7. Remek, I think the magnetic poles of Saturn are actually very close to the rotational poles, unlike Jupiter or Earth.

    Another interesting thing to notice in the picture is that famous Saturn hexagonal vortex. It’s sort of hard to see because the aurora is in the way, but here’s a clearer picture:

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/multimedia/pia11216.html

    I know the hexagonal vortex is slightly old news, but I still think it’s totally freaky.

  8. McCart

    Remek, you are mistaken. Saturn is the only planet in the solar system where the magnetic poles ARE inline with its rotational poles.

  9. michael s pierce

    I’m afraid the strangest thing to me are the hexagonal “standing waves” over the north pole and not the auroras.

  10. Monty

    Your calling Saturn’s north pole the equivalent of the Arctic (the north pole, but the magnetic south pole) made me wonder – is north and south on other planets defined from their magnetic poles? If so, is the magnetic south pole called the north pole, as on Earth? Or are the rotational poles used to define north and south?

  11. Tom S

    I always enjoy the Hollow Earth explanations for this kind of thing, mostly because they don’t conform to the usual ‘find something we don’t understand and use it to crowbar in an odd idea’ template, but rather they just make stuff up that sounds cool. The aurora are the light from the inside sun shining outwards, of course. This new image will clearly solve everything.

    Michael P – I must respectfully disagree with you, the aurora are far more interesting. Of course, some of my colleagues might agree with you more. ;P

  12. Palliard

    Is it possible that some of the ring material became ionized and was pulled down along different magnetic lines than the solar wind? That could get you concentric rings.

  13. TheWalruss

    Sad to think humans will (probably) never stand on the surface and look up at this spectacle first-hand. We’re too squishy!

    But I guess the clouds would get in the way, too, so I should be happy we get this view.

    Perhaps some tentacly creature from the depths of Enceladus can poke its head out from a vent to appreciate the view.

    So much awesome stuff to see, and so few people to see it!

    Stupid designer – couldn’t he come up with a universe with a denser concentration of intelligent life? Gosh!

  14. Gary Ansorge

    I expect there’s plenty of intelligent life out there. I also expect there’s very little techno intelligence anywhere. The universe, at 13.7 billion years old, is very young. We’ve barely had enough time for second generation metal rich stars to evolve, let alone for the techno intellects to get a grip. Technology is the only way we know for a species to leave their planetary environment and spread all over the place. If I was a Grand Designer, that’s how I would want it done. One techno sentience per galaxy per eon,,,less chance of a galaxy wide war zone developing,,,
    Of course, given humanities penchant for squabbling, we’ll probably do quite nicely warring with ourselves, no matter how far we colonize. Plenty of war stories to keep a Grand Old Designer entertained,,,

    Gary 7
    PS: Phenomenal Pics. I think Saturn is just one of the coolest planets ever,,,

  15. mike

    I would suggest that this is due to the hexagonal cyclone – perhaps the interaction of differently composed clouds rotating around the pole causes some sort of magnetic field to propagate?

    Sort of like when a magnetic field forms when you stroke two pieces of metal together for long enough? This could explain the strange cyclone lines. A rotating magnetic field independent of the regular planetary magnetosphere? maybe that could create a permanent deflection from what we portray as a normal polar cloud band. It could also explain some of the crazy aurora?

    But hey – im talking out of my ass because i dont actually know a whole lot about this stuff.

  16. Richard Smith

    Doesn’t really look infected that way; it’s not very triangular. Now, if Saturn reaches for the chicken scissors…

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