NASA is releasing the first images and sounds of an electrical connection between Saturn and one of its moons, Enceladus. The data collected by the agency’s Cassini spacecraft enable scientists to improve their understanding of the complex web of interaction between the planet and its numerous moons.
The results of the data analysis are published in the journals Nature and Geophysical Research Letters.
Scientists previously theorized an electrical circuit should exist at Saturn. After analyzing data that Cassini collected in 2008, scientists saw a glowing patch of ultraviolet light emissions near Saturn’s north pole that marked the presence of a circuit, even though the moon is 240,000 kilometers (150,000 miles) away from the planet.
The patch occurs at the end of a magnetic field line connecting Saturn and its moon Enceladus. The area, known as an auroral footprint, is the spot where energetic electrons dive into the planet’s atmosphere, following magnetic field lines that arc between the planet’s north and south polar regions.
“The footprint discovery at Saturn is one of the most important fields and particle revelations from Cassini and ultimately may help us understand Saturn’s strange magnetic field,” said Marcia Burton, a Cassini fields and particles scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “It gives us the first visual connection between Saturn and one of its moons.”
The auroral footprint measures approximately 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) by less than 400 kilometers (250 miles), covering an area comparable to California or Sweden. At its brightest, the footprint shone with an ultraviolet light intensity far less than Saturn’s polar auroral rings, but comparable to the faintest aurora visible at Earth without a telescope in the visible light spectrum. Scientists have not found a matching footprint at the southern end of the magnetic field line. Jupiter’s active moon Io creates glowing footprints near Jupiter’s north and south poles, so scientists suspected there was an analogous electrical connection between Saturn and Enceladus. It is the only known active moon in the Saturn system with jets spraying water vapor and organic particles into space. For years, scientists used space telescopes to search Saturn’s poles for footprints, but they found none.
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