A new analysis based on data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft finds a causal link between mysterious, periodic signals from Saturn’s magnetic field and explosions of hot ionized gas, known as plasma, around the planet.
Scientists have found that enormous clouds of plasma periodically bloom around Saturn and move around the planet like an unbalanced load of laundry on spin cycle. The movement of this hot plasma produces a repeating signature “thump” in measurements of Saturn’s rotating magnetic environment and helps to illustrate why scientists have had such a difficult time measuring the length of a day on Saturn.
The data show how plasma injections, electrical currents and Saturn’s magnetic field — phenomena that are invisible to the human eye — are partners in an intricate choreography. Periodic plasma explosions form islands of pressure that rotate around Saturn. The islands of pressure “inflate” the magnetic field.
The visualization shows how invisible hot plasma in Saturn’s magnetosphere – the magnetic bubble around the planet — explodes and distorts magnetic field lines in response to the pressure. Saturn’s magnetosphere is not a perfect bubble because it is blown back by the force of the solar wind, which contains charged particles streaming off the sun.
The force of the solar wind stretches the magnetic field of the side of Saturn facing away from the sun into a so-called magnetotail. The collapse of the magnetotail appears to kick off a process that causes the hot plasma bursts, which in turn inflate the magnetic field in the inner magnetosphere.
Scientists are still investigating what causes Saturn’s magnetotail to collapse, but there are strong indications that cold, dense plasma originally from Saturn’s moon Enceladus rotates with Saturn. Centrifugal forces stretch the magnetic field until part of the tail snaps back.
The snapping back heats plasma around Saturn and the heated plasma becomes trapped in the magnetic field. It rotates around the planet in islands at the speed of about 100 kilometers per second (200,000 mph). In the same way that high and low pressure systems on Earth cause winds, the high pressures of space cause electrical currents. Currents cause magnetic field distortions.
A radio signal known as Saturn Kilometric Radiation, which scientists have used to estimate the length of a day on Saturn, is intimately linked to the behavior of Saturn’s magnetic field. Because Saturn has no surface or fixed point to clock its rotation rate, scientists inferred the rotation rate from timing the peaks in this type of radio emission, which is assumed to surge with each rotation of a planet. This method has worked for Jupiter, but the Saturn signals have varied. Measurements from the early 1980s taken by NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, data obtained in 2000 by the ESA/NASA Ulysses mission, and Cassini data from about 2003 to the present differ by a small, but significant degree. As a result, scientists are not sure how long a Saturn day is.