It’s summertime on Saturn, and rarely have Earthlings seen such a clear view of the planet. The Hubble Space Telescope recently captured a new image of the planet, which shows its rings in stunningly clear detail.
NASA called Saturn the “lord of the rings” in its recent announcement about the new image, which was taken on July 4. At the time, the planet was 839 million miles (1.3 billion kilometres) from Earth — visible as just a spot of bright light with the naked eye.
The photo was taken as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy project, which is helping scientists study our solar system’s gas giants. Astronomers are eager to track shifting weather patterns and storms on Saturn in order to potentially understand its evolution.
The image highlights summertime in the planet’s northern hemisphere, NASA said. Not only is it stunning, but it captures important details of the planet’s shifting weather.
Visible are a number of small atmospheric storms, as well as the bands’ changing colour from year to year.
The reddish haze that can be seen over the northern hemisphere may be due to increased heat from the sun that comes during the summer. The heat may be affecting circulation or ice in the atmosphere, or the sunlight may be affecting the production of photochemical haze, NASA said.
“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.
Alternatively, the blue hue that can be seen at the South Pole of the planet — just barely visible — highlights how Saturn changes during the winter.
Mimas (right) and Enceladus, two of Saturn’s 82 moons, are also clearly visible in the image. NASA has previously speculated that Enceladus, which is the dot at the bottom of the image, could support life.
Also visible in crisp detail are the planet’s famous icy rings.
How and when the rings formed remains a mystery. One theory suggests they are as old as the planet itself, just over 4 billion years. However, the brightness of the rings suggests they could have formed much more recently when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
The Hubble Space Telescope celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this year. Its successor, the powerful James Webb Space Telescope, is scheduled to launch in October 2021, if the coronavirus pandemic does not delay it further.
banner image via NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope