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Hubble photos show mysterious ‘spokes’ on Saturn’s rings

Published Feb 14th, 2023 10:21PM EST
Image: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL Team

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Scientists continue to be baffled by a strange occurrence in Saturn’s rings. According to the space agency, spokes on Saturn’s rings have been a point of contention and bafflement among astronomers for decades since their discovery in the 1980s by NASA’s Voyager mission. These temporary features seem to appear within Saturn’s rings before the start of the planet’s autumn equinox.

With the planet’s autumn equinox expected to start in 2025, spoke season has begun on the ringed gas giant, with spokes appearing on Saturn’s B ring in the form of small smudges that can be seen in the image below.

spokes on saturn's rings
The spokes appear as smudges on the left-hand side of Saturn’s B ring. Image source: NASA, ESA, and Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC); Image Processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

The exact cause of these spokes is still very unclear, and it’s something that has baffled scientists for over four decades. It’s also something that humanity has only observed on Saturn. However, astronomers believe that the appearance of spokes on Saturn’s rings could have something to do with the planet’s variable magnetic field.

Like Earth, Saturn sits tilted on its axis and has four seasons. However, each season on Saturn lasts nearly seven Earth years, making for long winters and summers on the ice-ringed gas giant. The spokes only appear on Saturn’s rings when tilted on edge towards the Sun. When the magnetic field changes on Saturn, it is likely that particles within the rings become charged.

This, the scientists believe, helps to create the strange spokes we sometimes see on Saturn’s rings. But proving that is an entirely different matter, of course. Still, scientists continue to observe Saturn hoping we’ll find a reason behind the mysterious spokes one day. And perhaps we will. Until then, at least we have videos like the one above, which show off these beautiful mysteries in action.

Perhaps future missions to the outer solar system, as well as future observations by Hubble and the James Webb space telescope, will help us learn even more about this icy-ringed gas giant and these mysterious spokes, and perhaps answer the origin of Saturn’s rings while at it.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.

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