Saturday, 28 November 2009

Saturn's auroras put on a dazzling show

Cassini has spotted the tallest known "northern lights" in the solar system, flickering in shape and brightness high above the ringed planet.

"The auroras have put on a dazzling show, shape-shifting rapidly and exposing curtains that we suspected were there, but hadn't seen on Saturn before," said Andrew Ingersoll of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who is a member of the Cassini imaging team that processed the new video. "Seeing these things on another planet helps us understand them a little better when we see them on Earth."

Auroras occur on Earth, Jupiter, Saturn and a few other planets, and the new images will help scientists better understand how they are generated. Auroras appear mostly in the high latitudes near a planet's magnetic poles. When charged particles from the magnetosphere -- the magnetic bubble surrounding a planet -- plunge into the planet's upper atmosphere, they cause the atmosphere to glow. The curtain shapes show the paths that these charged particles take as they flow along the lines of the magnetic field between the magnetosphere and the uppermost part of the atmosphere.


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