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Upcoming Observations of Saturn’s Northern and Southern Lights

March 22, 2013

In the next few months, scientists who study Saturn’s aurora will be participating in an exciting observation campaign from the Cassini spacecraft, the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes.

Solar maximum prediction
Figure 1: the Sun is poised to reach a high point in its activity cycle, called solar maximum.
During the Saturn Aurora Campaign, Cassini’s remote sensing instruments will be monitoring the northern and southern aurora in the visible, infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths. Cassini observations have been designed to coincide with observations from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and ground-based observatories. These observations will provide unprecedented simultaneous or near-simultaneous observations of the aurora in both hemispheres across a range of wavelengths.

The activity that creates aurora begins on the Sun. and. like it does roughly every 11 years, the Sun is poised to reach a high point in its activity cycle, called solar maximum (figure 1). As it reaches this peak there is an increase in the number of solar storms. On Earth, these solar storms can disrupt radio communicate and compromise electrical power systems. They also create the beautiful northern and southern lights.

In addition, during this time Saturn will be at opposition, aligned with earth but on the opposite side from the sun (figure 2). As solar activity increases the effects of solar storms move radially outward in the solar system, first buffeting Earth’s magnetosphere and many days later reaching Saturn.

When these solar storms reach Saturn, they influence the aurora there as well. During the Saturn Aurora Campaign, scientists interested in so-called ‘space weather’ will be posting predictions of solar wind conditions at Saturn based on observations at the sun and near-earth. The spacing of observations of the aurora over several weeks will allow the effects of different solar wind conditions to be examined.

Saturn at opposition
Figure 2: Saturn at opposition, aligned with earth but on the opposite side from the sun
While observations from Earth will be of the northern aurora, Cassini will be observing both the northern and southern regions. When Cassini is observing the south pole, scientists will obtain simultaneous views of both the northern and southern aurora. When Cassini is observing the north pole, they will obtain unique ‘stereo’ views of Saturn’s northern aurora.

Studying the aurora provides scientists clues to the working of the magnetosphere, ionosphere and atmosphere. In the upcoming weeks scientists observing the aurora will be posting descriptions of their observations shortly after the data is received and processed.

Check back often for the latest exciting results!

Marcia Burton
Cassini Fields and Particles Scientist
Jet Propulsion Laboratory



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