The sun, Earth, and many other planets are surrounded by giant magnetic bubbles.
Space may seem empty, but it’s actually a dynamic place, dominated by invisible forces, including those created by magnetic fields. Magnetospheres – the areas around planets and stars dominated by their magnetic fields – are found throughout our solar system. They deflect high-energy, charged particles called cosmic rays that are mostly spewed out by the sun, but can also come from interstellar space. Along with atmospheres, they help protect the planets’ surfaces from this harmful radiation.
It’s possible that Earth’s protective magnetosphere was essential for the development of conditions friendly to life, so finding magnetospheres around other planets is a big step toward determining if they could support life.
But not all magnetospheres are created equal – even in our own backyard, not all planets in our solar system have a magnetic field, and the ones we have observed are all surprisingly different.
Earth’s magnetosphere is created by the constantly moving molten metal inside Earth. This invisible “force field” around our planet has an ice cream cone-like shape, with a rounded front and a long, trailing tail that faces away from the sun. The magnetosphere is shaped that way because of the constant pressure from the solar wind and magnetic fields on the sun-facing side.
Earth’s magnetosphere deflects most charged particles away from our planet – but some do become trapped in the magnetic field and create auroras when they rain down into the atmosphere.
Mercury, with a substantial iron-rich core, has a magnetic field that is only about 1% as strong as Earth’s. It is thought that the planet’s magnetosphere is stifled by the intense solar wind, limiting its strength, although even without this effect, it still would not be as strong as Earth’s. The MESSENGER satellite orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015, helping us understand our tiny terrestrial neighbor.
After the sun, Jupiter has by far the biggest magnetosphere in our solar system – it stretches about 12 million miles from east to west, almost 15 times the width of the sun. (Earth’s, on the other hand, could easily fit inside the sun.) Jupiter does not have a molten metal core like Earth; instead, its magnetic field is created by a core of compressed liquid metallic hydrogen.
One of Jupiter’s moons, Io, has intense volcanic activity that spews particles into Jupiter’s magnetosphere. These particles create intense radiation belts and the large auroras around Jupiter’s poles.
Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, also has its own magnetic field and magnetosphere – making it the only moon with one. Its weak field, nestled in Jupiter’s enormous shell, scarcely ruffles the planet’s magnetic field.
Saturn’s moon Enceladus transforms the shape of its magnetosphere. Active geysers on the moon’s south pole eject oxygen and water molecules into the space around the planet. These particles, much like Io’s volcanic emissions at Jupiter, generate the auroras around the planet’s poles. Our Cassini mission studies Saturn’s magnetic field and auroras, as well as its moon Enceladus.
Uranus’ magnetosphere wasn’t discovered until 1986 when data from Voyager 2’s flyby revealed weak, variable radio emissions. Uranus’ magnetic field and rotation axis are out of alignment by 59 degrees, unlike Earth’s, whose magnetic field and rotation axis differ by only 11 degrees. On top of that, the magnetic field axis does not go through the center of the planet, so the strength of the magnetic field varies dramatically across the surface. This misalignment also means that Uranus’ magnetotail – the part of the magnetosphere that trails away from the sun – is twisted into a long corkscrew.
Neptune’s magnetosphere is also tilted from its rotation axis, but only by 47. Just like on Uranus, Neptune’s magnetic field strength varies across the planet. This also means that auroras can be seen away from the planet’s poles – not just at high latitudes, like on Earth, Jupiter and Saturn.
Does Every Planet Have a Magnetosphere?
Neither Venus nor Mars have global magnetic fields, although the interaction of the solar wind with their atmospheres does produce what scientists call an “induced magnetosphere.” Around these planets, the atmosphere deflects the solar wind particles, causing the solar wind’s magnetic field to wrap around the planet in a shape similar to Earth’s magnetosphere.
What About Beyond Our Solar System?
Outside of our solar system, auroras, which indicate the presence of a magnetosphere, have been spotted on brown dwarfs – objects that are bigger than planets but smaller than stars.
There’s also evidence to suggest that some giant exoplanets have magnetospheres. As scientists now believe that Earth’s protective magnetosphere was essential for the development of conditions friendly to life, finding magnetospheres around exoplanets is a big step in finding habitable worlds.
This animation shows the fluttering aurorae that light up both of Saturn’s poles. 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.
There are not many sights more beautiful on Earth than the aurora but our planet is not the only place where they occur. In this image, scientists combined ultraviolet images of the aurora on Saturn, taken by Hubble, with visible-light images of the ringed planet from the Cassini Spacecraft.
Streams of charged particles blasted from the sun collide with Saturn’s magnetic field, creating an aurora on the planet’s south pole. Unlike Earth’s relatively short-lived auroras, Saturn’s can last for days.
While blue due to the UV light, Saturn’s northern and southern lights actually glow red on the bottom and purple on top in visible light. Earth’s auroras on the other hand are green on the bottom and red on top. The difference in color is due to variation in the dominant molecules of each planet’s atmospheres. Nitrogen and oxygen are prevalent in Earth’s auroras, while Saturn’s are composed of hydrogen.
(Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Clarke (Boston University), and Z. Levay (STScI)
Our Cassini spacecraft has been exploring Saturn, its stunning rings and its strange and beautiful moons for more than a decade.
Having expended almost every bit of the rocket propellant it carried to Saturn, operators are deliberately plunging Cassini into the planet to ensure Saturn’s moons will remain pristine for future exploration – in particular, the ice-covered, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, but also Titan, with its intriguing pre-biotic chemistry.
Let’s take a look back at some of Cassini’s top discoveries:
Under its shroud of haze, Saturn’s planet-sized moon Titan hides dunes, mountains of water ice and rivers and seas of liquid methane. Of the hundreds of moons in our solar system, Titan is the only one with a dense atmosphere and large liquid reservoirs on its surface, making it in some ways more like a terrestrial planet.
Both Earth and Titan have nitrogen-dominated atmospheres – over 95% nitrogen in Titan’s case. However, unlike Earth, Titan has very little oxygen; the rest of the atmosphere is mostly methane and traced amounts of other gases, including ethane.
There are three large seas, all located close to the moon’s north pole, surrounded by numerous smaller lakes in the northern hemisphere. Just one large lake has been found in the southern hemisphere.
The moon Enceladus conceals a global ocean of salty liquid water beneath its icy surface. Some of that water even shoots out into space, creating an immense plume!
For decades, scientists didn’t know why Enceladus was the brightest world in the solar system, or how it related to Saturn’s E ring. Cassini found that both the fresh coating on its surface, and icy material in the E ring originate from vents connected to a global subsurface saltwater ocean that might host hydrothermal vents.
With its global ocean, unique chemistry and internal heat, Enceladus has become a promising lead in our search for worlds where life could exist.
Saturn’s two-toned moon Iapetus gets its odd coloring from reddish dust in its orbital path that is swept up and lands on the leading face of the moon.
The most unique, and perhaps most remarkable feature discovered on Iapetus in Cassini images is a topographic ridge that coincides almost exactly with the geographic equator. The physical origin of the ridge has yet to be explained…
It is not yet year whether the ridge is a mountain belt that has folded upward, or an extensional crack in the surface through which material from inside Iapetus erupted onto the surface and accumulated locally.
Saturn’s rings are made of countless particles of ice and dust, which Saturn’s moons push and tug, creating gaps and waves.
Scientists have never before studied the size, temperature, composition and distribution of Saturn’s rings from Saturn obit. Cassini has captured extraordinary ring-moon interactions, observed the lowest ring-temperature ever recorded at Saturn, discovered that the moon Enceladus is the source for Saturn’s E ring, and viewed the rings at equinox when sunlight strikes the rings edge-on, revealing never-before-seen ring features and details.
Cassini also studied features in Saturn’s rings called “spokes,” which can be longer than the diameter of Earth. Scientists think they’re made of thin icy particles that are lifted by an electrostatic charge and only last a few hours.
The powerful magnetic field that permeates Saturn is strange because it lines up with the planet’s poles. But just like Earth’s field, it all creates shimmering auroras.
Auroras on Saturn occur in a process similar to Earth’s northern and southern lights. Particles from the solar wind are channeled by Saturn’s magnetic field toward the planet’s poles, where they interact with electrically charged gas (plasma) in the upper atmosphere and emit light.
Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere churns with immense storms and a striking, six-sided jet stream near its north pole.
Saturn’s north and south poles are also each beautifully (and violently) decorated by a colossal swirling storm. Cassini got an up-close look at the north polar storm and scientists found that the storm’s eye was about 50 times wider than an Earth hurricane’s eye.
Unlike the Earth hurricanes that are driven by warm ocean waters, Saturn’s polar vortexes aren’t actually hurricanes. They’re hurricane-like though, and even contain lightning. Cassini’s instruments have ‘heard’ lightning ever since entering Saturn orbit in 2004, in the form of radio waves. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Cassini’s cameras captured images of Saturnian lighting for the first time.
Cassini scientists assembled a short video of it, the first video of lightning discharging on a planet other than Earth.
Cassini’s adventure will end soon because it’s almost out of fuel. So to avoid possibly ever contaminating moons like Enceladus or Titan, on Sept. 15 it will intentionally dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.
The spacecraft is expected to lose radio contact with Earth within about one to two minutes after beginning its decent into Saturn’s upper atmosphere. But on the way down, before contact is lost, eight of Cassini’s 12 science instruments will be operating! More details on the spacecraft’s final decent can be found HERE.
Milky Way Rising and Aurora on a May Night by Alan Dyer Via Flickr: The arch of the northern summer Milky Way across the Alberta prairie sky on a spring night, with the glow of aurora to the north at left. At right are Saturn and Antares in Scorpius low in the south, and bright Jupiter at far right, with Spica to the left of Jupiter and Arcturus above at top right. The Summer Triangle stars are at centre straddling the Milky Way…Shot from home with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D at ISO 6400 for a stitch of 9 exposures, each 30 seconds. Stitched with PTGui. This was about 1 am May 16, just before local moonrise.
Image Credit: J. Clarke (Boston U.) & Z. Levay (STScI), ESA, NASA
Explanation: Are Saturn’s auroras like Earth’s? To help answer this question, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini spacecraft monitored Saturn’s South Pole simultaneously as Cassini closed in on the gas giant in January 2004. Hubble snapped images in ultraviolet light, while Cassini recorded radio emissions and monitored the solar wind. Like on Earth, Saturn’s auroras make total or partial rings around magnetic poles. Unlike on Earth, however, Saturn’s auroras persist for days, as opposed to only minutes on Earth. Although surely created by charged particles entering the atmosphere, Saturn’s auroras also appear to be more closely modulated by the solar wind than either Earth’s or Jupiter’s auroras. The above sequence shows three Hubble images of Saturn each taken two days apart.
Typically, if the planet has an active iron core/magnetosphere, it gets aurora at its poles!
Do note that yes, the aurora appear at both the North and South poles on Earth. Those who live in northern regions are not the only ones enjoying the show. Scientists/nerds and penguins living in Antarctica get to enjoy them too. Perhaps the polar bears do too….maybe some seals…Occasionally (though rare), Australia can see them too!
Ultraviolet and infrared images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and Hubble Space Telescope show active and quiet auroras at Saturn’s north and south poles.
Saturn’s auroras glow when energetic electrons dive into the planet’s atmosphere and collide with hydrogen molecules. Sometimes a blast of fast solar wind, composed of mostly electrons and protons, creates an active aurora at Saturn, as occurred on April 5 and May 20, 2013.
The first set of images, as seen in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum by Hubble, shows an active aurora dancing around Saturn’s north pole on April 5. The movie then shows a relatively quiet time between April 19 to 22 and between May 18 and 19. The aurora flares up again in Hubble images from May 20. This version, shown in false-color, has been processed to show the auroras more clearly.
A second set of ultraviolet images shows a closer view of an active north polar aurora in white. This set comes from Cassini ultraviolet imaging spectrograph observations on May 20 and 21.
The last set of images, in the infrared, shows a quiet southern aurora (in green) in observations from Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer on May 17. Saturn’s inner heat glows in red, with dark areas showing where high clouds block the heat.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Colorado/Central Arizona College and NASA/ESA/University of Leicester and NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Lancaster University