NASA: Hubble telescope detects strange spots on Saturn's rings

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Saturn's rings are perfectly one of the most representative features of our solar system. From Galileo's first fuzzy observations with his telescope to Cassini's determination of what kind of structures they were by Cassini. These have been of great interest from popular culture as well as in a scientific setting. The Hubble telescope is one of the main ways to study them. Currently, we are reaching a time of year when they are undergoing enigmatic changes.

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Fotografía tomada por el telescopio espacial Hubble del planeta Saturno. En la imagen aparecen «manchas» en los anillos. Créditos: ESA/Hubble, NASA & A. Simon, A. Pagan (STScI)

A year of change

Thanks to observations by telescopes on Earth or in orbit and the Pioneer 11, Voyager 2 and Cassini probes, the composition of these marvelous structures has been known in great detail.. Extending from 6,600 kilometers to 120,700 kilometers, Saturn's rings are large accumulations of small ice fragments, minor carbon and small traces of organic compounds.

 
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Ripples in Saturn's rings due to gravitational perturbation of the shepherd moon Daphnis as seen from the Cassini probe. Credits: JPL / Space Science Institute / NASA

All of these are located around the planet on the equator. In turn, Saturn has an inclination in its spin axis of 26.73° with respect to its plane of motion.. Thanks to Saturn's orbit, the seasons have a duration of 7 years. They are caused by the same phenomenon as on Earth. Depending on the position around the Sun, the amount of time an area receives light is different.

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The Cassini probe captured images of how the moon Prometheus generated disturbances in Saturn's F ring. At upper left is the moon and the shadow it casts. Credits: JPL / Space Science Institute / NASA

Season of spots

As part of the OPAL program, the Hubble Space Telescope has dedicated time to observe Saturn each year. We are now entering the so-called "spot season". As confirmed by the first ones detected in Saturn's B ring.

Stains or spokesare enigmatic features that appear throughout Saturn's rings. The presence and rate of formation of these are seasonally dependent.. Being the best time during the autumnal equinox. That in turn is when the rings are inclined edgewise towards the Sun, facilitating the observation of the phenomenon. On the other hand, during the solstice ceases its appearance.

So far, there is no certainty about the process of formation of the spokesTheir shapes are usually radial lines, but there are also numerous records of irregular figures. In addition to having a great variety of sizes and tonalities, although the latter depends on the angle from which it is observed.

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Photograph of the spokes in Saturn's rings as observed by the Voyager 2 spacecraft: NASA
Their existence is relatively short and around May 6 more will appear around the autumnal equinox. Offering the perfect opportunity to point our telescopes at Saturn and try to understand the process that leads to their appearance.. The current hypothesis proposes that due to the interaction between the rings and the solar wind, the solar wind electrically charges some of the dust and ice. This would then drive the smallest fragments to levitateFurther observations are still needed to confirm whether this is indeed the case.
Francisco Andrés Forero Daza