Just like comets, planets such as Saturn and Earth have a “tail” — known as the magnetotail — that is made up of electrified gas from the Sun and flows out in the planet’s wake.
When a particularly strong burst of particles from the Sun hits Saturn, it can cause the magnetotail to collapse, with the ensuing disturbance of the planet’s magnetic field resulting in spectacular auroral displays. A very similar process happens on Earth.
Scientists observed this process happening on Saturn firsthand between April and May of 2013 as part of a three-year-long Hubble observing campaign.
The ultraviolet 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.
Due to the composition of Saturn’s atmosphere, its aurorae shine brightly in the ultraviolet range of the electromagnetic spectrum. This observation campaign using Hubble meant that the astronomers were able to gather an unprecedented record of the planet’s auroral activity.
The team caught Saturn during a very dynamic light show. Some of the bursts of light seen shooting around Saturn’s polar regions traveled at more than three times faster than the speed of the gas giant’s rotation.
“These images are spectacular and dynamic because the auroras are jumping around so quickly,” said Jonathan Nichols from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. “The key difference about this work is that it is the first time the Hubble has been able to see the northern auroras so clearly.”
“The particular pattern of auroras that we saw relates to the collapsing of the magnetotail,” he added. “We have always suspected this was what also happens on Saturn. This evidence really strengthens the argument.”
“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,” said Nichols. “It’s the smoking gun that shows us that the tail is collapsing.”
The new images also formed part of a joint observing campaign between Hubble and NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is currently in orbit around Saturn itself.
Between them, the two spacecraft managed to capture a 360° view of the planet’s aurora at both the north and south poles. Cassini also used optical imaging to delve into the rainbow of colors seen in Saturn’s light shows.
On Earth, observers of aurorae see green curtains of light with flaming scarlet tops. Cassini’s imaging cameras reveal similar auroral veils on Saturn, which are red at the bottom and violet at the top.