On July 4, 2020, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured a mesmerizing image of Saturn. The snapshot was taken when the planet was 839 million miles from Earth and it features summer in the planet’s northern hemisphere.
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In the image, you can spot a couple of small atmospheric storms, transient features that come and go with each yearly Hubble observation. The planet has a yellowish-brown color due to its atmosphere that is mostly hydrogen and helium with traces of ammonia, methane, water vapor, and hydrocarbons.
Hubble also spotted a slight reddish haze over the northern hemisphere that may have resulted from heating caused by increased sunlight. This could alter the atmospheric circulation or interfere with the amounts of photochemical smog produced.
“It’s amazing that even over a few years, we’re seeing seasonal changes on Saturn,” said lead investigator Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The image also clearly reveals two of Saturn’s icy moons; Mimas at right, and Enceladus at bottom, as well as its impressive rings. The latter are mostly made of varying sized of ice pieces.
To this day, how and when Saturn’s rings took shape remains one of the biggest mysteries. There is speculation that they may be as old as the planet, over 4 billion years. However, other competing theories state that they may have formed during the age of our dinosaurs.
“However, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft measurements of tiny grains raining into Saturn’s atmosphere suggest the rings can only last for 300 million more years, which is one of the arguments for a young age of the ring system,” said team member Michael Wong of the University of California, Berkeley.
This image is the result of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project that helps scientists understand the evolution of our solar system’s gas giant planets.