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The Cassini orbiter has spotted the tallest known ‘northern lights’ in the solar system, rippling like curtains above Saturn.
The aurora reaches more than 1,200 kilometers above the edge of the planet’s northern hemisphere.
“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. “Seeing these things on another planet helps us understand them a little better when we see them on Earth.”
Auroras generally appear near a planet’s magnetic poles. When charged particles from the magnetosphere 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.
The height of the lightshow on Saturn exposes a key difference between Saturn’s atmosphere and our own, Ingersoll said. While Earth’s atmosphere has a lot of oxygen and nitrogen, Saturn’s atmosphere is composed mostly of hydrogen. Because hydrogen is very light, the atmosphere and auroras reach far out from Saturn. Earth’s auroras tend to flare only about 100 to 500 kilometers above the surface.
Ultraviolet and infrared instruments on Cassini have captured images of and data from Saturn’s auroras before, but in these latest images, Cassini’s narrow-angle camera was able to capture the northern lights in the visible part of the light spectrum, in higher resolution.
The images were originally obtained in black and white, and the imaging team highlighted the auroras in false-color orange. The oxygen and nitrogen in Earth’s upper atmosphere contribute to the colorful flashes of green, red and even purple in our auroras. But scientists are still working to determine the true color of the auroras at Saturn, whose atmosphere lacks those chemicals.
The new video is here.