Hubble telescope reveals mystery on Saturn’s rings

Scientists have made a breakthrough discovery about Saturn’s rings with the help of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Recent images captured by the telescope have revealed mysterious moving shadows along the rings, known as “spokes”.

According to NASA, these ghostly spokes only persist for two or three rotations around Saturn. During active periods, new spokes continuously add to the pattern.

While the appearance of the spokes remains a mystery, scientists are hopeful that they will gather more data during Saturn’s upcoming equinox in 2025, when spoke activity is expected to peak.

It is believed that the dark spokes are dust particles that are electrostatically levitated above the ring plane. The abundance of spokes seems to change with Saturn’s seven-year-long seasons, possibly due to changes in the planet’s magnetic field caused by the solar wind, according to NASA.

The Hubble telescope captured these images on October 22 when Saturn was approximately 850 million miles away from Earth. The clear images demonstrate that the frequency of spoke apparitions follows a seasonal pattern. Similar to Earth, Saturn experiences seasons lasting around seven years due to its tilted axis.

Amy Simon, lead scientist of Hubble’s Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy program, stated, “We are heading towards Saturn’s equinox, when we’d expect maximum spoke activity, with higher frequency and darker spokes appearing over the next few years. The leading theory is that spokes are tied to Saturn’s powerful magnetic field, with some sort of solar interaction with the magnetic field that gives you the spokes.”

The ring spokes were initially observed by NASA’s Voyager 2 in 1981. Subsequently, NASA’s Cassini orbiter also documented the spokes during its 13-year mission that concluded in 2017. Hubble, which has been orbiting Earth a few hundred miles above the surface since 1990, continues to observe Saturn annually as the spokes come and go.

Although no theory perfectly explains the spokes after several decades of observation, NASA remains optimistic that continued monitoring by the Hubble telescope will eventually unravel the mystery.

Featured Image Photo Credit: NASA

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