No twist in this tail: Leicester research backs up Saturn aurora theory

Posted by er134 at May 19, 2014 09:55 AM |
New observations of the ringed planet show dramatic auroral activity occurs when the planet’s magnetotail collapses
No twist in this tail: Leicester research backs up Saturn aurora theory

Images of Saturn's northern UV auroras . Figure credit: NASA, ESA, Jonathan Nichols

Just like Earth, Saturn has a “tail” - a magnetic one to be precise, formed from a trail of electrified gas from the Sun which flows out in the planet’s wake.

What’s more, scientists have long suspected that this “magnetotail” is responsible for dramatic auroral activity on the ringed planet – in a very similar way to a process which happens here on Earth.

Now, Leicester research has produced the strongest evidence to date which backs up this theory.

A team led by Dr Jonathan Nichols, of our Department of Physics and Astronomy carried out observations of Saturn between April and May last year. The findings were made using the Hubble Space Telescope, as part of a three-year-long observational campaign.

They captured stunning images of fast-moving auroras across the planet’s north pole.

These occurred as the planet’s magnetotail was buffered by particularly strong bursts of charged particles from the Sun. This makes the magnetotail collapse - causing huge disturbances to the planet’s magnetic field and resulting in spectacular auroral displays.

The scientists have said this is a “smoking gun” for the theory that the collapsing magnetotail causes these effects on the planet.

The results have been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.