The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Hubble Space Telescope has taken the latest image of Saturn which shows the appearance of spokes on the planet’s rings, marking the beginning of a new spoke season, according to a NASA statement.The statement said scientists will look for clues to explain the cause and nature of the spokes.The statement further said the suspected culprit for the spokes is the planet’s variable magnetic field.
The magnetic field of the planets interact with the solar wind, creating an electrically charged environment. NASA said when those charged particles on earth hit the atmosphere, it is visible in the northern hemisphere as the aurora borealis, or northern lights.
According to NASA, scientists believe that even the smallest, dust-sized icy ring particles have the potential to get charged, elevating them momentarily above the larger icy particles and boulders in the rings.
Saturn has four seasons, just like Earth, and is inclined on its axis, much like Earth. However, due to Saturn’s far bigger orbit, each season lasts roughly seven Earth years, according to the space agency.
Equinox occurs when the rings are tilted edge-on to the Sun.
The spokes disappear when it is near the summer or winter solstice on Saturn, which is when the Sun appears to reach either its highest or lowest latitude, respectively, in the northern or southern hemisphere of a planet, the space agency said.
As Saturn’s northern hemisphere autumnal equinox on May 6, 2025, approaches, the spokes are expected to become increasingly prominent and observable, the statement said.
The latest image captured by Hubble marks the beginning of Saturn’s “spoke season” showing two smudgy spokes in the B ring, one of which is the Saturn ring, the statement said.
The ephemeral features don’t last long, but as the planet’s autumnal equinox approaches, more will appear, the statement said.
The ring spokes were first observed by NASA’s Voyager mission in the early 1980s. The transient, mysterious features can appear dark or light depending on the illumination and viewing angles, the statement said.
NASA senior planetary scientist Amy Simon, head of the Hubble Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program said, “Thanks to Hubble’s OPAL program, which is building an archive of data on the outer solar system planets, we will have longer dedicated time to study Saturn’s spokes this season than ever before.” NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has observation time devoted to Saturn each year, thanks to the OPAL program, and the dynamic gas giant planet always showed something new, said the space agency.
(With PTI inputs)