Latest insights into Saturn’s weird magnetic field only make things weirder

Posted: October 6, 2018 by oldbrew in Astrophysics, solar system dynamics

Saturn from the Cassini orbiter [image credit: NASA]

Weird compared to some theories, perhaps – but observations can trump theories, of course. Is it too weird to ask if the planet’s rings, extending outwards from the equator, and its axis-aligned magnetic field could be related phenomena?

Some of the last data from the Cassini mission reveals more structure in Saturn’s magnetic field, but still no answer as to how it formed, says

NASA’s Cassini mission—with Imperial kit on board—took a series of daring dives between the planet and its inmost ring in September 2017 before burning up in the planet’s atmosphere.

A first analysis of the data from the magnetometer instrument, built and run by Imperial College London physicists, shows that the planet’s magnetic field has a tilt of less than 0.01?. The results are published today in a special issue of Science reporting the first end-of-mission results.

It was thought that magnetic fields around planets can only form when there is a discernible tilt between the rotation axis of the planet and the magnetic field axis. This is the situation on Earth, where the magnetic poles are offset from the geographic poles.

This tilt sustains currents in a liquid metal layer deep inside a planet—on Earth this is a liquid iron-nickel layer around the solid iron core, and on Saturn it’s believed to be a metallic hydrogen layer surrounding a small rocky core.

Principal investigator for the magnetometer Professor Michele Dougherty, from the Department of Physics at Imperial, said: “Each time we more accurately measure the tilt of Saturn’s magnetic field, it gets smaller, until now we are in a position where it is smaller than a hundredth of a degree. This is in sharp contrast to the Earth’s magnetic field tilt of 11 degrees.

“It may still be that Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere of thick gases is obscuring some of the magnetic data, but it looks increasingly likely we will have to rethink the ways different kinds of planets can form magnetic fields.”

While the almost negligible tilt is a surprising mystery to scientists, the team did spot some other interesting structures in the magnetic field close to the planet, which may hold further clues.

Closer to Saturn, they saw signals that hint at a secondary source of magnetism for the planet. Above the deep liquid hydrogen layer creating the main planet-wide magnetic field, they suggest there is a shallower layer producing many much smaller, stable magnetic fields.

There also seems to be an electric current flowing between the inner ring, the D ring, and the planet. The rings cut across the main magnetic field lines as they lie around the planet’s equator, and may play a role in shaping magnetic fields generated externally from the planet.

Continued here.

  1. JB says:

    “Is it too weird to ask if the planet’s rings, extending outwards from the equator, and its axis-aligned magnetic field could be related phenomena?”

    Not with the correct model–which has been known for decades. These folks at NASA always seem to be the last to get with it.

  2. J.S. Pailly says:

    I read recently that Juno is finding some weird stuff going on with Jupiter’s magnetic field too. And what little we know about Uranus and Neptune suggests they have pretty strange magnetic fields as well. At least, all these magnetic fields seem strange when compared to Earth’s. Maybe we shouldn’t assume Earth’s magnetic field is the standard anymore.

  3. oldbrew says:

    It’s Raining Tiny Particles from Saturn’s Innermost Ring

    surprising, eye-catching phenomena like a pounding hail of compounds pummeling the planet’s equatorial region and an electric current produced merely by the planet’s winds and magnetic field. [bold added]

    JS Pailly says:I read recently that Juno is finding some weird stuff going on with Jupiter’s magnetic field too.

    Livescience: And while Saturn is the star here, the results may explain a second solar system mystery as well. “Jupiter’s atmosphere is highly turbulent and so the same phenomenon applied to the magnetic field of Jupiter would create pretty large currents and would heat the thermosphere pretty rapidly,” Khurana said. That includes the Great Red Spot, the giant storm that infamously gnarls Jupiter’s southern hemisphere, and that scientists have realized is awfully toasty.

  4. p.g.sharrow says:

    @oldbrew; thank you for bringing up new observations and reminding us to re-examine our theories of how the universe works.
    The movement of mater and it’s fields about an axis is the same as moving electricity around in a wire circuit. Magnetic and EMF field production is the same, just on a different scale. Whether a proton or stellar body the effects are the same. We just have a different POV due to size and our position when taking the view….pg

  5. oldbrew says:

    Surprising chemical complexity of Saturn’s rings changing planet’s upper atmosphere
    October 4, 2018

    the rings are moving faster than the atmosphere

    What determines their rotation rate around Saturn?

    The inner edge of the Cassini Division is governed by a strong orbital resonance. Ring particles at this location orbit twice for every orbit of the moon Mimas.

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