These two natural colour images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft show the changing appearance of Saturn’s north polar region between 2012 and 2016.
Scientists are investigating potential causes for the change in colour of the region inside the north-polar hexagon on Saturn. The colour change is thought to be an effect of Saturn’s seasons. In particular, the change from a bluish colour to a more golden hue may be due to the increased production of photochemical hazes in the atmosphere as the north pole approaches summer solstice in May 2017.
Researchers think the hexagon, which is a six-sided jetstream, might act as a barrier that prevents haze particles produced outside it from entering. During the polar winter night between November 1995 and August 2009, Saturn’s north polar atmosphere became clear of aerosols produced by photochemical reactions — reactions involving sunlight and the atmosphere. Since the planet experienced equinox in August 2009, the polar atmosphere has been basking in continuous sunshine, and aerosols are being produced inside of the hexagon, around the north pole, making the polar atmosphere appear hazy today.
Other effects, including changes in atmospheric circulation, could also be playing a role. Scientists think seasonally shifting patterns of solar heating probably influence the winds in the polar regions.
Both images were taken by the Cassini wide-angle camera.
The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations centre is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.