Intense Auroras Mean Saturn's Magnetic Tail is Collapsing
New images of Saturn's skies amidst the aurora light show support the theory that Saturn's manetotail is in the middle of a violent collapse, according to a recent observational report.
Scientists from the University of Leicester observed the auroras in real time around this time last year, as part of a three-year-long Hubble observation campaign. Images of the auroras were taken using the Hubble telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys - a hyper sensitive system that can capture high definition ultraviolet images. This was necessary for observation because, according to University of Leicester scientist Dr. Jonathan Nichols, the composition of the planet's atmosphere causes Saturn's auroras to shine brightly in the ultraviolet range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
"These images are spectacular and dynamic, because the auroras are jumping around so quickly," Nichols said in a university news release.
"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," he added. "It's the smoking gun that shows us that the tail is collapsing."
According to the researchers, similar activity happens on Earth to cause the Aurora borealis of the northern hemisphere and Aurora australis of the southern hemisphere. Auroras are the visual results of collisions between gaseous particles in the atmosphere with charged particles from the Sun. Much like comets, planets can leave a magnetic trail made up of electrified gas that flows out in an orbiting planets wake, astronomers note.
Interestingly, astronomers have long believed that Saturn's tail is actually in the midst of collapsing due to particularly strong bursts of Sun-borne particles. The dramatic play of aurora activity that was recently observed helps provide evidence for this theory, as the chaotic nature of the light display itself can indicate a gaseous tail in turmoil or a particularly powerful blast from the Sun - most likely both.
These findings have been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.