Saturn's magnetosphere changes with seasons
Washington: An undergraduate student from the University of Iowa has discovered that a process occurring in Saturn's magnetosphere is linked to the planet's seasons and changes with them.
The finding will help clarify the length of a Saturn day and could alter our understanding of the Earth's magnetosphere.
Saturn's magnetosphere is the third largest structure in the solar system, eclipsed only by the magnetic fields of the Sun and Jupiter.
Unlike Earth, which has a visible rocky surface and rotates once every 24 hours, Saturn is composed mostly of clouds and liquid gas layers, each rotating about the planet at its own rate of speed.
This variation in rotation makes it difficult for scientists to pin down time for the planet.
Decades ago, a strong and naturally occurring radio signal, called Saturn kilometric radiation (SKR), was believed to give an accurate measurement of a Saturn day. But data gathered by an ESA/NASA spacecraft proved otherwise.
Now, using data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which entered orbit around Saturn in 2004, UI space physicist Donald Gurnett and other scientists showed that the north and south poles have their own SKR "days" that vary over periods of weeks and years. How these different periods arise and are driven through the magnetosphere has become a central question of the Cassini mission , according to NASA officials.
The discovery by Tim Kennelly, a UI junior majoring in physics and astronomy, is one of the first direct observations of seasonal changes in Saturn's magnetosphere. In addition, the finding carries over to all planets having a magnetosphere, including Earth.
"I'm pleased to have contributed to our understanding of Saturn's magnetosphere so early in my career," Kennelly, the lead author of the paper said
"I hope this trend continues," he said.
Scientists have known for some time that Saturn's magnetospheric processes are linked together, from the activity generating the SKR emission relatively near the planet to the periodic signatures in Saturn's magnetosphere stretching millions of miles downstream in the planet's magnetotail. But they didn't know how they were linked.
Kennelly analyzed phenomena recorded between July 2004 and December 2011 by Cassini's UI-built Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument and came to some novel conclusions about how the events are linked.
First, he looked at inward-moving "flux tubes" composed of hot, electrically charged gas, called plasma.