Science

Saturn: Scientist Figures Out How To Tell Time On Ringed Planet

By Nina Sen , May 03, 2013 04:08 PM EDT
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A junior at the University of Iowa has found a method of telling time on Saturn.

Tim Kennelly, a junior majoring in physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa, has made an observation about how Saturn's magnetic field is linked to the planet's seasons. The findings were published in the American Geophysical Union's (AGU) Journal of Geophysical Research.

Using data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, another researcher at the University of Iowa, space physicist Donal Gurnett, showed that the north and south poles of the ringed planet have their own Saturn kilometric radiation (SKR). SKR is defined as a strong and naturally occurring radio signal emitted from the planet's magnetosphere.

Kennelly observed that SKRs are linked with what scientists call "flux tubes" composed of hot, electrically charged gas, called plasma. He found that these tubes occurred around the same time of an SKR in both poles. For example, during winter in the northern hemisphere, the occurrence of flux tubes correlates with the SKR period. The same holds true for winter in the southern hemisphere.

Scientists had been previously unable to identify seasons on Saturn because the planet is covered by thick layers of gas and clouds. These layers each rotate at their own speed, making it difficult to define time on the planet. With the research by Kennelly, scientists can observe the occurence of flux tubes and their effect on time on nearly every planet with a magnetic field, including our home planet.

"I'm pleased to have contributed to our understanding of Saturn's magnetosphere so early in my career. I hope this trend continues," Kennelly said in an official press statement from the university.

This finding may alter how scientists look at the Earth's magnetosphere and the Van Allen radiation belts that affect a variety of activities at Earth, ranging from space flight safety to satellite and cellphone communications.

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