Lightning Bolts from Saturn

Rings imaged June 30, 2004 as Cassini passed over the thin layer of dust and rock. Bands are created by resonance conditions between Saturn and its moons, which tend to clear out regions of lower relative densities. Image Credit: JPL/NASA

The Cassini spacecraft, which began its tour of the Saturn system just over a month ago, has detected lightning and a new radiation belt at Saturn.

The spacecraft’s radio and plasma wave science instrument detected radio waves generated by lightning. "We are detecting the same crackle and pop one hears when listening to an AM radio broadcast during a thunderstorm," said Dr. Bill Kurth, deputy principal investigator on the radio and plasma wave instrument, University of Iowa, Iowa City. "These storms are dramatically different than those observed 20 years ago."

Cassini finds radio bursts from this lightning are highly episodic. There are large variations in the occurrence of lightning from day to day, sometimes with little or no lightning, suggesting a number of different, possibly short-lived storms at middle to high latitudes. Voyager observed lightning from an extended storm system at low latitudes, which lasted for months and appeared highly regular from one day to the next.

Mysterious ring spokes first seen by Voyager. Image Credit: JPL/NASA

The difference in storm characteristics may be related to very different shadowing conditions in the 1980s than are found now. During the Voyager time period when lightning was first observed, the rings cast a very deep shadow near Saturn’s equator. As a result, the atmosphere in a narrow band was permanently in shadow — making it cold — and located right next to the hottest area in Saturn’s atmosphere. Turbulence between the hot and cold regions could have led to long-lived storms. However, during Cassini’s approach and entry into Saturn’s orbit, it is summer in the southern hemisphere and the ring shadow is distributed widely over a large portion of the northern hemisphere, so the hottest and coldest regions are far apart.

The artist concept (banner) shows how Cassini is able to detect radio signals from lightning on Saturn. Lightning strokes emit electromagnetic energy across a broad range of wavelengths, including the visual wavelengths we see and long radio wavelengths that cause static on an AM radio during a thunderstorm. Some of the radio waves propagate upwards and can be detected at long distances by the radio and plasma wave science instrument on Cassini.

One barrier to the radio waves, however, is Saturn’s ionosphere, a hot, ionized layer above the atmosphere that can block low frequency radio waves. The low frequency waves are either reflected or absorbed by the ionosphere. The higher frequency waves can pass right through the ionosphere, however, and subsequently be detected by Cassini. By measuring the lowest frequencies that can be detected by Cassini, scientists can determine the density of Saturn’s ionosphere.

Thin ring shadow first seen by Voyager. Image Credit: JPL/NASA

A major finding of the magnetospheric imaging instrument is the discovery of a new radiation belt just above Saturn’s cloud tops, up to the inner edge of the D-ring. This is the first time that a new Saturnian radiation belt has been discovered with remote sensing.

This new radiation belt extends around the planet. It was detected by the emission of fast neutral atoms created as its magnetically trapped ions interact with gas clouds located planetward of the D-ring, the innermost of Saturn’s rings. With this discovery, the radiation belts are shown to extend far closer to the planet than previously known.

"This new radiation belt had eluded detection by any of the spacecraft that previously visited Saturn. With its discovery we have seen something that we did not expect, that radiation belt particles can ‘hop’ over obstructions like Saturn’s rings, without being absorbed by the rings in the process," said Dr. Donald G. Mitchell, instrument scientist for the magnetospheric imaging instrument at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.

Related Web Pages

Saturn Edition, Astrobiology Magaz.
Cassini Closes In on Saturn
Saturn– JPL Cassini Main Page
Lord of the Rings
Space Science Institute, Imaging Team Boulder, Colorado
Saturn: The Closest Pass