Behold! the Cassini spacecraft’s final images taken while it was exploring the Saturn system has offered experts an unprecedented view of the planet lord of the rings and its orbiting satellites.
Images of Saturn’s ultraviolet auroras in an unprecedented resolution stand out from the analysis of the final data sent by the Cassini spacecraft remained in orbit around Saturn for a period of more than 13 years, gathering important scientific data, and taking breathtaking images of the system. Eventually, as the spacecraft ran out of fuel, its mission ended in September 2017.
For the grand finale of its journey, the spacecraft was put on an especially daring orbit crossing between Saturn and its rings, which drew it closer to Saturn than ever before. This enabled scientists to capture images of Saturn’s ultraviolet auroras in unprecedented resolution. The new observations are described in two new studies published in Geophysical Research Letters and JGR: Space Physics.
Saturn’s auroras are produced by the interaction of solar wind, a stream of energy particles emitted by the Sun, and Saturn’s fast-rotating magnetic field.
They are positioned in the polar regions of the planet and are acknowledged to be extremely dynamic, often pulsating and flickering as different dynamic processes take place in the planet’s plasma environment.
Alexander Bader, a Ph.D. student from Lancaster (UK) revealed in a recent statement:
“Surprisingly many questions revolving around Saturn’s auroras remain unanswered, even after the outstanding success of the Cassini mission.
“This last set of close-up images gives us unique highly detailed views of the small-scale structures which couldn’t be discerned in previous observations by Cassini or the Hubble Space Telescope. We have some ideas about what their origin could be, but there is still a lot of analysis to be done.”
However, as revealed by researchers, satellite imagery won’t do the trick and unravel the mysteries surrounding Saturn’s auroras. The energetic particles that give rise to the extremely bright light show near Saturn’s poles originate at a great distance from the planet’s surface, where the gas giant’s magnetic field lines bend, and clouds of plasma interact with one another.
The first analysis of Cassini’s particle measurements showed that Saturn’s auroras, such as those seen at Jupiter, are generated by particles much more energetic than those we have on Earth.
However, the underlying physical mechanisms seem to show similarities between the three.
Although the Cassini mission is long over, the data it has gathered throughout its long years of service is a treasure trove of knowledge for experts, filled with surprises and unprecedented data which will help scientists understand how the auroras are generated on giant planets.
The data gathered by Cassini, as well as the data obtained by the Juno Spacecraft orbiting Jupiter is key to understanding many aspects of Saturn and Jupiter.
You can see one of the studies and its corresponding images here.