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The Poles of Saturn and Its Moons - Windows to the Universe

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With Explore the Planets, investigate the planets, their moons, and understand the processes that shape them. By G. Jeffrey Taylor, Ph.D. See our DVD collection.
This picture shows the aurora over Saturn's South Pole. The aurora (Southern Lights) are shown in blue in this picture. The Hubble Space Telescope took this picture in 2004.
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Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, J. Clarke (Boston University), and Z. Levay (STScI).

The Poles of Saturn and Its Moons

There's a lot of strange and interesting stuff going on at both the North and South Poles of Saturn. Two of Saturn's moons also have interesting polar regions. Let's take a look!

The atmosphere and clouds are quite odd at both of Saturn's poles. Scientists first spotted a strange hexagonal pattern around the North Pole in the 1980s. In 2006, the Cassini spacecraft found a weird "hurricane-like" storm swirling around Saturn's South Pole.

Saturn, like Earth and some other planets, has a magnetic field. On most planets the magnetic field is not quite lined up straight with the planet's spin axis. Saturn is unusual in this way. Its spin axis is almost perfectly aligned with its magnetic field. The two are only 1 apart. For comparison, Earth's magnetic poles are tilted about 11 away from its geographic poles. On the planet Uranus, the tilt angle is almost 57!

Saturn's magnetic field steers swarms of high-energy subatomic particles towards the planet's magnetic poles. When these particles hit gas molecules in Saturn's atmosphere they produce the glowing light of the aurora. Saturn, like Earth, has Southern and Northern Lights!

There are interesting poles on some of Saturn's moons, too. Titan is Saturn's largest moon. It has frigid lakes of liquid natural gas at each of its poles. Astronomers have also spotted clouds near Titan's poles. Maybe rain from those clouds fills up the polar lakes.

Enceladus is one of Saturn's mid-sized moons. The South Pole of Enceladus is another interesting place. Long "tiger stripe" features on the surface are much, much warmer than other places on this icy moon. There are even geysers that spew ice high into the sky above the South Pole of Enceladus.

Last modified January 20, 2009 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF