Auroras On Saturn To Be Closely Monitored
April 16, 2013

Scientists To Spend A Month Closely Observing Saturn’s Auroras

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

An international team of researchers, in collaboration with University of Leicester planetary scientists, has organized the largest ever observational campaign of Saturn's auroras.

To expand our knowledge of the planet's northern lights, a host of space and ground-based telescopes will focus on the ringed gas giant for the month-long project. Scientists from the University's Department of Physics and Astronomy have worked with NASA and the European Space Observatory (ESO) to create this opportunity.

The range of instruments involved in the project is impressive: NASA and ESA´s Hubble Space Telescope, the NASA/ESA/ASI Saturn-orbiting spacecraft Cassini, the ESO´s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii and NASA´s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) in Hawaii. Each will make a different observation of Saturn's aurora covering a variety of wavelengths and viewpoints. This has the potential to supply the most comprehensive data set on the phenomenon to date.

The hope is the combined observations will provide a better understanding of how the auroras are formed and the way energy flows from the solar winds and the planet's magnetic field into the ionosphere and atmosphere of Saturn.

We might also gain information relevant to other auroras, such as those here on Earth.

Between April 19 and May 21, 2013, the array of instruments will observe both the northern and southern auroras at several points. This period was chosen because it is the time of year when Saturn is closest to Earth and at its largest in the night's sky.

Dr. Tom Stallard, RCUK Academic Fellow in Planetary Science at Leicester, will lead the ground-based observations — over 74 hours from IRTF and over 15 hours from VLT, both of which will observe the northern aurora.

Dr. Jonathan Nichols will lead Hubble's 11 total hours of observation of the planet's northern ultraviolet aurora, while Dr. Sarah Badman is coordinating with the Cassini team to plan over 142 hours of observation of both the northern and southern auroras.

Dr. Stallard will work closely with Dr. Kevin Baines, of NASA´s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who is leading on Keck observations over 24 hours.

The findings from each instrument will be collated at the end of the observations, allowing the scientists to view and compare the observations of auroral events from many different angles.

“Up until now, it´s like we have been looking at the aurora in black and white — and now we're trying to look in color. We're hoping to get much more depth to the observations we have taken - filling in a far more complete picture of the aurora as a whole, rather than disconnected parts," said Dr Stallard, of the Radio and Space Plasma Physics Group within the University of Leicester´s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“What we hope to gain from this observing campaign is a way to link different auroral and magnetospheric events, following the flow of energy through the system, from the solar wind and magnetic field of Saturn down into the ionosphere and atmosphere. By understanding the way this energy flows at Saturn, we should also gain real insight into the interaction between the Sun and other planets.”

Dr Jon Nichols added, "Over the last few years, the view from Earth of Saturn's north pole has been steadily growing, and we have been using Hubble to take snaps of Saturn's northern auroras as the view gets better.

“This year will provide us with the best views yet of the north, and it's very exciting that a battery of other instruments will be zeroing in on the auroras at the same time. It takes a great deal of effort to obtain such coordinated efforts, so credit has to go to the whole team in getting this program organized."

Dr Badman said, “The coordination with Hubble, Cassini, Keck Observatory, IRTF and the VLT is going to provide really exciting science. For example, we may obtain good views of the northern and southern auroral emissions at the same time - Cassini looking at the south from high latitudes while HST and the other telescopes look at the north.”

A podcast concerning the project is available currently and the team hopes to stream live observations from the WM Keck Observatory's website.