By Nahid Chowdhury (University of Leicester)
Planetary parameters at Saturn have exhibited mysterious time variabilities and periodicities for almost two decades. After the first Voyager measurements of the 1980s led to a determination of a rotation rate for the ringed planet, the advent of the Cassini mission in the 2000s showed that the measured length of a day at Saturn was subject to change. Numerous theories were proposed to explain the time variabilities seen in planetary parameters ranging from the radio emission through to the energies of neutral atoms and these fell into one of two general categories. The first was that a driving mechanism for the observed periodic behaviour would be situated externally to the planet, within the magnetosphere. The second was that a driving mechanism would be situated within the planet’s atmosphere.
Using infrared observations of Saturn’s northern polar auroral H3+ emission taken with Keck-NIRSPEC in 2017, we investigated ion flows in our search for a signature of the twin-vortex mechanism in the planet’s upper atmosphere that was purported to drive the observed periodicities. H3+ is an ion found in the ionosphere of gas giant planets and measurements of its line-of-sight velocity are indicative of the more general motion of constituents in the planet’s atmosphere.
By grouping our spectral data into quadrants of local northern planetary magnetic phase, we set up our experiment to probe the ion flows driven by the planetary period current. This led to the astonishing detection of the proposed ionospheric twin-vortices that are considered to be responsible for the periodicities witnessed throughout Saturn’s planetary and magnetospheric environments. Our observations show that local atmospheric weather effects at Saturn drive the twin-vortex flows while also generating some auroral emissions. This result has far-reaching implications for both other planets in our Solar System and exoplanetary systems.
Figure caption: Shown here is an example of the type of winds within the upper atmosphere that are driving the ionosphere to move in the way observed in this new paper. This set of two vortices rotate around the pole of the planet, driving currents within the ionosphere, which then reach out into the surrounding magnetosphere, producing the bright aurora and magnetic field changes observed by Cassini. This weather system was originally proposed by Chris Smith in a paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2011 (doi:10.1111/j.1365-2966.2010.17602.x) – and it is these modelled flows that we show here.
Please see paper for full details: Chowdhury, M.N., Stallard, T.S., Baines, K.H., Provan, G., Melin, H., Hunt, G.J., Moore, L., O’Donoghue, J., Thomas, E.M., Wang, R. and Miller, S., 2022. Saturn's Weather‐Driven Aurorae Modulate Oscillations in the Magnetic Field and Radio Emissions. Geophysical Research Letters, 49(3), p.e2021GL096492. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1029/2021GL096492.