Saturn's aurora appears in blue in this image of the ringed planet's South Pole. This image was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004.
Click on image for full size
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. Features at the poles of two of Saturn's moons, Titan and Enceladus, have also grabbed the attention of astronomers.

There are weird atmospheric phenomena and peculiar patterns in the clouds near each of Saturn's poles. An odd hexagonal pattern around the North Pole was first spotted in the 1980s. More recent images from the Cassini spacecraft may eventually help scientists determine the cause of this puzzling geometric structure. In 2006, Cassini spotted a bizarre "hurricane-like" storm swirling around Saturn's South Pole.

Saturn, like Earth and Jupiter and some other planets, has a global magnetic field. Unlike most planets, Saturn's spin axis is almost perfectly aligned with its magnetic field. The direction of the magnetic field diverges from Saturn's spin axis by less than 1. For comparison, Earth's magnetic poles are about 11.4 away from its geographic poles, Jupiter's dipole field axis is out of alignment with its spin axis by about 9.6, and the magnetic field of Uranus is tilted a whopping 58.6!

Saturn's magnetic field channels swarms of energetic subatomic particles towards the planet's magnetic poles. Collisions of these particles with gases in Saturn's atmosphere produce the glowing light of the aurora. Saturn, like Earth, has Southern and Northern Lights!

Titan, Saturn's largest moon, has frigid lakes of liquid natural gas at each of its poles. Astronomers have also spotted clouds, whose rain might fill the polar lakes, near both of Titan's poles.

The South Pole of Enceladus, one of Saturn's mid-sized moons, is one of the most intriguing places in our Solar System. Surprisingly warm (compared to the rest of this icy moon) "tiger stripe" features on the surface seem somehow connected to elaborate underground "plumbing". This plumbing system creates 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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