These recent observations go well beyond just a still image and have allowed researchers to monitor the behaviour of both Saturn's poles in the same shot over a sustained period of time. The movie they created from the data, collected over several days during January and March 2009, has aided astronomers studying both Saturn's northern and southern aurorae. Given the rarity of such an event, this new footage will likely be the last and best equinox movie that Hubble captures of our planetary neighbour.
This unique Hubble image from early 2009 features Saturn with the rings edge on and both poles in view, offering a stunning double view of its fluttering aurorae. Created by the interaction of the solar wind with the planet's magnetic field, Saturn's aurorae are analogous to the more familiar northern and southern light on Earth.
(Photo Credit: NASA, ESA and Jonathan Nichols (University of Leicester))
At first glance the light show of Saturn's aurorae appears symmetric at the two poles. However, analyzing the new data in greater detail, astronomers have discovered some subtle differences between the northern and southern aurorae, which reveal important information about Saturn's magnetic field. The northern auroral oval is slightly smaller and more intense than the southern one, implying that Saturn's magnetic field is not equally distributed across the planet; it is slightly uneven and stronger in the north than the south.
Despite its remoteness, the Sun's influence is still felt by Saturn. The Sun constantly emits particles that reach all the planets of the Solar System as the solar wind. When this electrically charged stream gets close to a planet with a magnetic field, like Saturn or the Earth, the field traps the particles, bouncing them back and forth between its two poles.
A natural consequence of the shape of the planet's magnetic field, a series of invisible "traffic lanes" exist between the two poles along which the electrically charged particles are confined as they oscillate between the poles. The magnetic field is stronger at the poles and the particles tend to concentrate there, where they interact with atoms in the upper layers of the atmosphere, creating aurorae, the familiar glow that the inhabitants of the Earth's polar regions know as the northern and southern lights