This picture shows the aurora (Southern Lights) of Saturn. The aurora looks like a blue ring of light over Saturn's South Pole in this picture. The Hubble Space Telescope took this picture in 2004.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, J. Clarke (Boston University), and Z. Levay (STScI).
Have you ever seen the Southern or Northern Lights? Earth isn't the only planet that puts on these beautiful light shows, which are also called the "aurora". Aurora have been seen at both poles of Saturn, too.
The solar wind is a flow of charged particles that stream outwards from the Sun. When they get to Saturn, some of those particles are trapped by Saturn's magnetic field. Fast-moving electrons bounce back and forth in Saturn's magnetic field, gaining more and more energy. Some of them blast into Saturn's atmosphere near the planet's poles. The electrons cause hydrogen gas in the atmosphere to glow. It is a lot like the glow that lights a fluorescent bulb when electricity flows through it.
Aurora on Earth usually shine for a few hours at most. Aurora on Saturn can last for days! These "curtains of light" sometimes rise 1,200 miles (2,000 km) above the cloud tops near Saturn's poles. If you were on Saturn, the aurora would look like a faint red glow. Most of the energy in Saturn's aurora is not in the form of visible light, though. Instead, they mostly glow in ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths.
Most UV "light" cannot get through Earth's atmosphere. That means telescopes on the ground cannot see Saturn's UV aurora. However, telescopes in Earth orbit can. Spacecraft that fly near Saturn can also "see" the ringed planet's aurora. The Hubble Space Telescope has taken some pictures of Saturn's aurora. The Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 & 2, and Cassini spacecraft have observed Saturn's aurora from closer range.
The aurora at Earth are mostly caused when high-energy particles collide with either nitrogen or oxygen in our atmosphere. Saturn's aurora are caused by electrons crashing into hydrogen molecules and atoms in Saturn's upper atmosphere. Scientists have also detected radio signals emitted by Saturn's aurora. It is a lot like the static you can sometimes hear on a radio when lightning strikes nearby.
Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!
Learn about Earth and space science, and have fun while doing it! The games
section of our online store
includes a climate change card game
and the Traveling Nitrogen game
You might also be interested in:
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...more
One main type of radiation, particle radiation, is the result of subatomic particles hurtling at tremendous speeds. Protons, cosmic rays, and alpha and beta particles are some of the most common types...more
Saturn's magnetosphere is not as big as Jupiter's, but it is still pretty big. It is big enough to hold all of Saturn's moons. It is probably made the same way as is Jupiter's, which affects its overall...more
The force of magnetism causes material to point along the direction the magnetic force points. As shown in the diagram to the left, the force of magnetism is illustrated by lines, which represent the force....more
The dramatic appearance of Saturn stems mainly from the spectacular rings. The atmosphere looks much less dramatic. The clouds of Saturn are much less colorful than those of Jupiter. This is because the...more
The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was one of the most important exploration tools of the past two decades, and will continue to serve as a great resource well into the new millennium. The HST found numerous...more
The rare arrangement of planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in the 1980's made it possible for the Voyager spacecrafts to visit them over a 12 year span instead of the normal 30. They used gravity...more