Saturn, Enceladus Generate Same Amount Of Plasma

First Posted: Feb 12, 2016 12:03 PM EST

Scientists have discovered the first evidence that indicates that Saturn and Enceladus, its sixth-largest moon, produce the same amount of plasma. In the latest study, the researchers found that Saturn's upper atmosphere, when surrounded by solar winds, releases the same total amount of mass per second into its magnetosphere as Enceladus. The researchers used data that was obtained by the Cassini spacecraft to carry out their research.

"Cassini never ceases to amaze us. First, it found that the plume of Enceladus is the main source of the water-rich magnetosphere which ultimately escapes from the planet...Now, we find that solar wind compression allows much lighter hydrogen ions to escape from Saturn's upper atmosphere at times," Andrew Coates, coauthor of the study and Cassini co-investigator, said in a news release.

Magnetospheres are areas in space that are influenced by the magnetic fields of close by planets. They contain charged particles in the form of plasma, which they acquire from internal and external sources. Enceladus releases water from its icy plumes, which is eventually ionized into H2O+, O+, OH+ and then dispersed throughout the magnetosphere. Cassini researchers have identified Enceladus as the dominant mass source for Saturn's magnetosphere. However for the first time, researchers found that Saturn's ionosphere has a similar plasma production rate.

The researchers used data which was obtained by Cassini while it was surveying Saturn's magnetotail, which is a part of the magnetosphere that is compressed and confined by solar wind. The compression often results generates auroras, which have energized ions and electrons. Cassini measured the composition of particles in the magnetotail, which turned out to be different from normal.

"By measuring the flux of particles in the magnetotail and mapping them to the auroral outflow region, we calculated that the total amount of mass emitted per second may be as large as the rate at which mass is emitted from Enceladus," said Marianna Felici, coauthor of the study. "It is unknown how much of this mass stays in the magnetosphere and how much escapes down the magnetotail and joins with the solar wind."

The findings of this study were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

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