The unprecedented duration of Cassini’s reconnaissance of Saturn is allowing planetary scientists to study the implications of the shifting seasons for the first time. Dr. Leigh Fletcher, Senior Research Fellow in RSPP and co-investigator on Cassini, has recently published a new study of Saturn’s shifting temperatures and composition from Cassini in the journal Icarus (Fletcher et al. 2016, Icarus 264, p137-159, http://arxiv.org/abs/1509.02281), using a thermal-infrared instrument called CIRS (the Composite Infrared Spectrometer). By considering many thousands of spectra taken since 2004, Fletcher and colleagues were able to reconstruct Saturn’s changing climate in three dimensions – latitude, altitude and time – constructing the first ever movies of Saturn’s changing environmental conditions.
The movies revealed the slow warming of Saturn’s northern hemisphere as it emerged from the darkness of polar winter into spring sunlight. Air began sinking over Saturn’s northern polar region, carrying chemicals along with it so that these species (notably spin isomers of hydrogen and hydrocarbons produced by methane photochemistry) became enriched in the northern hemisphere as spring progressed. Likewise, as Saturn’s autumnal hemisphere descended into winter darkness, the movies revealed the cooling and disappearance of a large warm seasonal vortex over Saturn’s south pole. The results also showed that Saturn doesn’t respond instantaneously to the sunlight changes – the atmosphere has such a large thermal inertia that the coldest northern conditions are actually found in springtime rather than at winter solstice, lagging almost a season behind the solar insolation.
Fletcher and colleagues used the movies to investigate the dynamical, meteorological and chemical consequences of the shifting seasons, including the ability of Saturn’s atmosphere to host planetary wave activity. These waves, potentially launched into the stratosphere by powerful weather activity at deeper levels, can only propagate under certain atmospheric conditions. One striking example of that was the intense springtime storm, which launched waves high into the overlying stratosphere in 2010-11. These storms appear to happen once per year during spring or summer, but how these enormous storms might be linked to the seasonal cycle remains a topic of ongoing investigation. Finally, the shifting temperature was shown to alter the atmospheric chemistry and the production of hazes. These hazes are responsible for Saturn’s familiar ochre appearance, and were notably absent from Saturn’s blue northern hemisphere early in Cassini’s mission. As the temperatures warmed, aerosol particles grew in size and Saturn’s ‘blues’ dissipated, providing a direct connection between Saturn’s shifting temperatures and the colours we can see in the clouds.
These results form a part of a new book on Cassini’s discoveries on Saturn that will soon be available from Cambridge University Press. Fletcher’s chapter on Saturn’s seasons is available as a preprint (http://arxiv.org/abs/1510.05690).