Scientists believe helium rain influences Saturn’s unique magnetic field

Shane McGlaun - May 7, 2021, 7:12am CDT
Scientists believe helium rain influences Saturn’s unique magnetic field

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have published the results of a study where they simulated the conditions necessary to create Saturn’s unique magnetic field. The team believes a thick layer of helium rain influences the magnetic field of Saturn. Their models also suggest that the interior of Saturn may be at a higher temperature in equatorial areas.

The model suggests lower temperatures are present at high latitudes at the top of the helium rain layer. Researchers on the project point out that it is challenging to study the interior structures of giant gaseous planets and their findings help to advance efforts to map the hidden areas of Saturn. Researcher Sabine Stanley says that by studying how Saturn formed and evolved over time, we can learn a lot about the formation of other planets similar to Saturn within our solar system.

One of the key differentiators between Saturn and other planets in the solar system is the unique magnetic field almost perfectly symmetrical around the rotation axis. Details of the magnetic field were obtained during the Cassini mission’s last orbits, providing an opportunity to understand more about the planet’s deep interior. Saturn’s magnetic field is generated deep in its interior.

Researchers on the project fed the data gathered by Cassini into computer simulations similar to those currently used for studying weather and the climate. Researchers explored what was necessary to produce the electromagnetic conversion mechanism known as the Dynamo to account for the magnetic field lines on Saturn. The team discovered that the model was very sensitive to specific things like temperature.

Simulations suggest that a slight degree of non-axisymmetry could exist near the north and south poles of the planet. Stanley said even though observations of Saturn show the magnetic field appears perfectly symmetrical, computer simulations can fully interrogate the field. However, researchers say direct observation at the poles would be necessary to confirm their findings.

If they could confirm the finding, the data could have implications for understanding another challenge facing scientists in the study of Saturn for decades, which is how to measure the rate at which the planet rotates. Knowing how fast the planet rotates would allow the determination of the length of a day on the planet.


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