A university study studying Saturn's northern lights

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Views of Saturn's northern lights taken by the Cassini spacecraft in September 2007

  • author, Daisy Stephens
  • stock, BBC News

An astronomer is about to use the most powerful telescope ever built to get a „game-changing” view of Saturn's northern lights.

Dr James O'Donoghue from the University of Reading is part of the team that spent time with the James Webb Telescope (JWST).

What they believe is responsible for the planet's northern lights and observe Uranus.

Dr Henrik Melin, from the School of Physics at the University of Leicester, who led the research team, said it would fundamentally shape our understanding of the two planets.

image source, University of Reading

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An infrared image of Saturn taken by the James Webb Telescope, showing the probe's viewing areas

The northern lights are usually caused by high-energy charged particles that are driven downward and collide with a planet's atmosphere through the planet's magnetic field.

„Our magnetic field is basically a giant shield, and the Sun's solar wind actually hits that shield and it allows lots of charged particles to come into our atmosphere and create a dazzling light show in the polar regions,” Dr O'Donoghue said.

But the exact origin of the aurora for Saturn and Uranus is a little less clear – something the study aims to change.

For Uranus, they want to answer one key question — whether the aurora is caused by interaction with the solar wind like Earth, internal sources within a system like Jupiter, or interaction somewhere like Saturn.

Dr O'Donoghue also said there was a „secret hope” that could tell scientists more about the planets' cycle periods – the length of the day.

„I'm really looking forward to it,” he said.

image source, James O'Donoghue

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Dr O'Donoghue said the images would „change the game”.

JWST is in space, so it avoids „our pesky atmosphere with clouds,” Dr O'Donoghue said.

The two research proposals were among 1,931 submissions for the JWST Cycle 3 Public Audience Program.

This program captures a whole day's worth of images for each planet.

Observations of Saturn will take place in late 2024 and Uranus in early 2025.

image source, University of Reading

image caption,

An infrared image of Uranus from the James Webb Telescope

Video from University of Reading

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