Saturn Emits Energy Unevenly


click image to make it gigantic

This false-color composite image, constructed from data obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, shows Saturn’s rings and southern hemisphere. The composite image was made from 65 individual observations by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer in the near-infrared portion of the light spectrum on Nov. 1, 2008. The observations were each six minutes long.

In this image constructed from data collected in the near-infrared wavelengths of light, scientists designated blue to indicate sunlight reflected at a wavelength of 2 microns, green to indicate sunlight reflected at 3 microns and red to indicate thermal emission at 5 microns. Saturn’s rings reflect sunlight at 2 microns, but not at 3 and 5 microns, so they appear deep blue. Saturn’s high altitude haze reflects sunlight at both 2 and 3 microns, but not at 5 microns, and so it appears green to blue-green. The heat emission from the interior of Saturn is only seen at 5 microns wavelength in the spectrometer data, and thus appears red. The dark spots and banded features in the image are clouds and small storms that outline the deeper weather systems and circulation patterns of the planet. They are illuminated from underneath by Saturn’s thermal emission, and thus appear in silhouette.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team is based at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

There are complex and interesting trends in the pattern of emission of energy from the ‘surface’ of Saturn. Overall the energy output from the planet dimmed from 2005 to 2009, though the southern hemisphere consistently emitted more than the northern hemisphere. Also, Saturn emits more energy than it absorbs from the sun.

“The fact that Saturn actually emits more than twice the energy it absorbs from the sun has been a puzzle for many decades now,” said Kevin Baines, a Cassini team scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and a co-author on a new paper about Saturn’s energy output. “What generates that extra energy? This paper represents the first step in that analysis.”

This is being studied with the use of a composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS) aboard the Cassini spacecraft. CIRS measures radiant energy not in the human optic range (which doesn’t really make is special, but it makes it seem special to us Earthlings).

Planetary scientists, being physicists, tend to treat their subjects as spherical cows, assuming that they emit energy evenly in all directions as though they were even spheres. But they don’t, and this study of Saturn is a great example of this.

Instead, Saturn’s flow of outgoing energy was lopsided, with its southern hemisphere giving off about one-sixth more energy than the northern one, Li explains. This effect matched Saturn’s seasons: during those five Earth-years, it was summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the northern one. (A season on Saturn lasts about seven Earth-years.) Like Earth, Saturn has these seasons because the planet is tilted on its axis, so one hemisphere receives more energy from the sun and experiences summer, while the other receives less energy and is shrouded in winter. Saturn’s equinox, when the sun was directly over the equator, occurred in August 2009.

In the study, Saturn’s seasons looked Earth-like in another way: in each hemisphere, its effective temperature, which characterizes its thermal emission to space, started to warm up or cool down as a change of season approached. The effective temperature provides a simple way to track the response of Saturn’s atmosphere to the seasonal changes, which is complicated because Saturn’s weather is variable and the atmosphere tends to retain heat. Cassini’s observations revealed that the effective temperature in the northern hemisphere gradually dropped from 2005 to 2008 and started to warm up again by 2009. In the southern hemisphere, the effective temperature cooled from 2005 to 2009.

Much more detail here.

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5 thoughts on “Saturn Emits Energy Unevenly

  1. What’s the current best hypothesis for why Saturn appears to emit more than twice as much energy as it receives from the Sun? And is it supported by empirical data or primarily by model data?

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