EPSC 2010 – Saturn’s First Dive Inside Saturn’s Aurora
September 24, 2010

EPSC 2010: Saturn’s First Dive Inside Saturn’s Aurora

The Cassini spacecraft has made the first observations from within the radio aurora of another planet than Earth. The measurements, which were taken when the spacecraft flew through an active auroral region in 2008, show some similarities and some contrasts between the radio auroral emissions generated at Saturn and those at Earth.  Results were presented this week by Dr Laurent Lamy at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome, and recently published in Geophysical Research Letters.

“So far, this is a unique event,” said Lamy (Observatoire de Paris, France).  “Whereas the source region of Earth’s radio aurora has been studied by many missions, this is our first opportunity to observe the equivalent region at Saturn from the inside.  From this single encounter, we have been able to build up a detailed snapshot of auroral activity using three of Cassini’s instruments.  This gives us a fascinating insight into the processes that are generating Saturn’s radio aurora.”

Cassini encountered the auroral region at a distance of 247 million kilometres from Saturn’s cloud tops (about 4 times Saturn’s radius).  Above the spectacular visible-light displays of Saturn’s Northern and Southern Lights, auroral emissions occur this far from the planet at radio wavelengths.  The emissions are generated by fast moving electrons spiralling along Saturn’s magnetic field lines, which are threaded through the auroral region.

On 17 October 2008, Cassini’s MAG (magnetometer), RPWS (radio) and CAPS (electrons) instruments detected three successive curtains of active auroras. An international team of scientists has now combined magnetic, radio and particle in situ observations to build up a picture of the local radio source properties and the surrounding auroral plasma. They also identified the magnetic field lines along which radio aurora are emitted

“The instrument that measures radio waves, RPWS, can tell us the direction that each radio wave detected is travelling. By mapping this information onto magnetic field lines, we can work out the location of each radio source.  In addition, we can project the source locations along the field lines that curve down to Saturn’s southern pole and visualise a radio oval comparable to the auroral features commonly seen at ultraviolet wavelengths. Unusually, the oval observed during this event is strongly distorted, which indicates a particularly enhanced auroral activity,” said Lamy.

Earth also has radio auroral emissions and these new results show that the process that generates radio aurora appears to be the same at both planets. Interestingly, there are two minor differences between the aurora at Earth and Saturn.  At Earth, there is a cavity in the plasma above the auroral oval that rises for several thousand kilometres. The new observations show that this is not seen at Saturn. Secondly, radio sources were crossed at much further distances from the planet. These differences reflect intrinsic differences between the two magnetospheres, in terms of dimensions and planetary rotation speed.

Cassini crossed high latitude auroral field lines during 40 orbits in 2008, but this is the only time that the instruments detected unusually strong electric currents in that region in space with in situ evidence of an active aurora.

“We think that the unusual conditions responsible for these intense electric currents might have been triggered by a solar wind compression squeezing Saturn’s magnetic field and producing the observed auroras”, said Emma Bunce, a team member from the University of Leicester in the UK.


Image 1: Image of Saturn’s aurora seen at ultraviolet wavelengths.  The spiral shape seen here is similar to the distorted radio aurora visualised by the team and also indicates enhanced auroral activity. Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

Image 2: Cassini crossed the radio aurora of Saturn on 17 October 2008, at a distance of 4 Saturn’s radii above the atmosphere. These radio emissions, generated by fast electrons, are strongly beamed. They were characterised by simultaneous observations of three different experiments.
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Iowa/CNES/Observatoire de Paris

Animation: Visualisation of the sources of a radio aurora at Saturn.  The animation is based on Cassini observations using the RPWS instrument.  On the left hand side are the radio sources as seen from Cassini.  The right hand side shows the projection of the radio sources down onto the southern pole of the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Iowa/CNES/Observatoire de Paris


The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument is led by a team at the University of Iowa. The magnetometer team is based at Imperial College London. The Cassini Plasma Spectrometer team is based at the South West Research Institute in Texas.

French contributors have been supported by CNES (French National Space Sgency)

This event was investigated in detail by a set of companion studies: an overview of the event (2), and three others focussing on currents (3), radio amplification (4) and observed electrons (5).

(1) Lamy, L., et al. (2010), Properties of Saturn kilometric radiation measured within its source region, Geophysical Research Letter, 37, L12104, doi:10.1029/2010GL043415.

(2) A close encounter with the source region of Saturnian Kilometric Radiation, W.S. Kurth et al, submitted to proceedings of Planetary Radio Emissions 7 workshop

(3) Extraordinary field-aligned current signatures in Saturn’s high-latitude magnetosphere: Analysis of Cassini data during Revolution 89, E. Bunce et al, Journal of Geophysical Research, in press
(4) CMI Growth Rates for Saturnian Kilometric Radiation, R.L. Mutel et al, Geophysical Research Letter, in press

(5) Auroral electron distributions within and close to the SKR source region, P. Schippers et al, submitted to Journal of Geophysical Research

European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2010

EPSC 2010 is organised by Europlanet, a Research Infrastructure funded under the European Commission’s Framework 7 Programme, in association with the European Geosciences Union, with the support of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) and the INAF Institute of Physics of Interplanetary Science (IFSI) in Rome. EPSC is the major meeting in Europe for planetary scientists. The 2010 programme comprises 48 sessions and workshops covering a wide range of planetary topics.
EPSC 2010 is taking place at the Angelicum Center – Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome, Italy from Sunday 19 September to Friday 24 September 2010.
For further details, see the meeting website: http://meetings.copernicus.org/epsc2010/

Europlanet Research Infrastructure (RI)
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Europlanet RI brings together the European planetary science community through a range of Networking Activities, aimed at fostering a culture of cooperation in the field of planetary sciences, Transnational Access Activities, providing European researchers with access to a range of laboratory and field site facilities tailored to the needs of planetary research, as well as on-line access to the available planetary science data, information and software tools, through the Integrated and Distributed Information Service.   These programmes are underpinned by Joint Research Activities, which are developing and improving the facilities, models, software tools and services offered by Europlanet
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