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Local-time averaged maps of H3+ emission, temperature and ion winds

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journal contribution
posted on 28.04.2020, 15:40 by T Stallard

We present Keck-NIRSPEC observations of Saturn's H3+ aurora taken over a period of a month, in support of the Cassini mission's ‘Grand Finale’. These observations produce two-dimensional maps of Saturn's H3+ temperature and ion winds for the first time. These maps show surprising complexity, with different morphologies seen in each night. The H3+ ion winds reveal multiple arcs of 0.5–1 km s−1 ion flows inside the main auroral emission. Although these arcs of flow occur in different locations each night, they show intricate structures, including mirrored flows on the dawn and dusk of the planet. These flows do not match with the predicted flows from models of either axisymmetric currents driven by the Solar Wind or outer magnetosphere, or the planetary periodic currents associated with Saturn's variable rotation rate. The average of the ion wind flows across all the nights reveals a single narrow and focused approximately 0.3 km s−1 flow on the dawn side and broader and more extensive 1–2 km s−1 sub-corotation, spilt into multiple arcs, on the dusk side. The temperature maps reveal sharp gradients in ionospheric temperatures, varying between 300 and 600 K across the auroral region. These temperature changes are localized, resulting in hot and cold spots across the auroral region. These appear to be somewhat stable over several nights, but change significantly over longer periods. The position of these temperature extremes is not well organized by the planetary period and there is no evidence for a thermospheric driver of the planetary period current system. Since no past magnetospheric or thermospheric models explain the rich complexity observed here, these measurements represent a fantastic new resource, revealing the complexity of the interaction between Saturn's thermosphere, ionosphere and magnetosphere.

This article is part of a discussion meeting issue ‘Advances in hydrogen molecular ions: H3+, H5+ and beyond’.


This work was supported by the UK STFC for T.S.S., M.N.C. and T.J.B. S.V.B. was supported by STFC grant nos. ST/R000816/1 and ST/M005534/1.



:Stallard TSet al. 2019 Local-time averaged maps of H3 + emission, temperature and ion winds.Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 377: 20180405.

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/Organisation/COLLEGE OF SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING/Department of Physics and Astronomy


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Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A: Mathematical and physical sciences






Royal Society



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The Keck data are available on the Keck Observatory Archive: The Cassini/MIMI data are available through NASA's Planetary Data System