Saturn's rings are heat source for the planet's atmosphere, thanks to Hubble

It's a phenomenon never before observed in our solar system.
Kavita Verma
Saturn's rings heat its atmosphere
New study unveils how Saturn's rings heat its atmosphere and potential implications for exoplanets.


In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists have found that Saturn's vast ring system is heating the gas giant's upper atmosphere, a phenomenon never before observed in our solar system.

The study, based on observations from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and other missions, highlights the unexpected interaction between Saturn and its rings. Better yet, it could provide a tool to predict the presence of rings around exoplanets.

The effect of icy ring particles

The critical evidence for this discovery is an excess of ultraviolet radiation seen as a spectral line of hot hydrogen in Saturn's atmosphere. This bump in radiation suggests that something is contaminating and heating the upper atmosphere from the outside. The most plausible explanation is that icy ring particles are raining down onto Saturn's atmosphere, causing this heating effect.

When NASA's Cassini probe plunged into Saturn's atmosphere in 2017, it measured the atmospheric constituents and confirmed that many particles were falling from the rings. Lotfi Ben-Jaffel, the study's lead author, explained that the slow disintegration of the rings was already known. Still, its influence on the atomic hydrogen of the planet was unexpected.

To reach this conclusion, Ben-Jaffel pulled together archival ultraviolet-light (UV) observations from four space missions that studied Saturn, including the two NASA Voyager probes from the 1980s, Cassini, Hubble, and the International Ultraviolet Explorer.

By calibrating and comparing the data from all these missions, he found that the steady "ice rain" from Saturn's rings was the best explanation for the heating effect observed in the planet's atmosphere.

The discovery of this interaction between Saturn and its rings could have broader implications for studying exoplanets. Ben-Jaffel said:

"We are just at the beginning of this ring characterization effect on the upper atmosphere of a planet. We eventually want to have a global approach that would yield a real signature about the atmospheres of distant worlds." This research could potentially aid the search for "exo-rings" around planets orbiting other stars.

Other potential benefits of the discovery

This groundbreaking study not only sheds light on the mysterious interaction between Saturn and its rings but also opens up possibilities for further research into the presence of ring systems around exoplanets. With a better understanding of these interactions, scientists can continue to explore and expand our knowledge of the universe and its countless celestial bodies.

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