A major energy imbalance has been discovered on Saturn

Will Saturn’s turmoil ever end? Scientists have discovered that the ringed planet has a massive, seasonal energy imbalance across its globe.

The discovery marks a turning point in our understanding of the weather and climate of the gas giant planets, their long-term evolution and ongoing changes.

“This is the first time that a seasonal-scale global energy imbalance has been observed in a gas giant,” says physicist Liming Li of the University of Houston. “Not only does this give us new insight into the formation and evolution of planets, but it also changes the way we think about planetary and atmospheric science.”

Here’s what it means. The powerful light of the Sun that flows throughout the Solar System energizes everything it hits. Energy is also lost from the planets in the form of cooling, radiating into space mainly in the form of thermal radiation.

In the case of the gas giant planets, including Saturn, there is also an energy source that erupts deep inside and affects the planet’s climate from within.

A team led by atmospheric scientist Xinyue Wang of the University of Houston was studying Cassini’s data on Saturn to examine its brightness when they noticed something interesting. The difference between the amount of energy it absorbs compared to the amount of energy it emits can vary by as much as 16 percent, with fluctuations that match the planet’s seasons.

This, the researchers discovered on closer inspection, has to do with how far Saturn is from the Sun at any given time. Saturn’s orbit is not perfectly circular; it’s actually elliptical—a property called eccentricity—which leads to a distance difference of nearly 20 percent between its closest to the Sun and its furthest.

A chart showing Saturn’s energy imbalance. (NASA/JPL)

When it is closer, Saturn receives much more radiation from the Sun than when it is further away, which results in seasonal energy imbalances. This is quite different from the way Earth works; its orbit is more circular, so we don’t experience the same deep contrast.

It’s not what anyone expected for the gas giants, really.

“In current models and theories of the atmosphere, climate and evolution of gas giants, the global energy budget is assumed to be balanced,” Wang explains. “But we believe that our discovery of this seasonal energy imbalance calls for a reevaluation of those models and theories.”

This could mean that Saturn’s unbalanced energy may play a hitherto unknown role in generating large convective storms that pierce deep into the atmosphere, and that similar processes may be at play with other gas giants such as Jupiter. , whose eccentricity is only slightly less pronounced than that of Saturn.

It may also help us understand the weather a little better on Earth, where the energy imbalance is much less important, but still not zero. And the other gas-covered planets, Neptune and Uranus, whose much-understudied inner and outer workings are still very much a mystery to us humans.

“Our data suggest that these planets will also have significant energy imbalances, especially Uranus, which we predict will have the strongest imbalance due to its orbital eccentricity and very high inclination. [tilt]”, says Wang.

“What we are investigating now will identify limitations in current observations and formulate testable hypotheses that will benefit this next flagship mission.”

Never change, Saturn.

The research was published in Nature Communications.

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