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Saturn Looks Grand in the Summertime

Saturn on dark background with two moons that look like stars
NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL Team

How does it feel to spend the Fourth of July on Saturn? We’ll likely never know, but now we have a good idea of what the giant planet looks like on that date, thanks to new images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Saturn’s atmosphere is made of mostly hydrogen and helium with traces of ammonia, methane, water vapor, and hydrocarbons, so spending a relaxing weekend on the planet celebrating American Independence Day is out of the question for a while. But those gases certainly made the giant look great on July 4, when it was 839 million miles from Earth.

Red Haze

While a series of small atmospheric storms and the banding in the rings of the upper part of Saturn are similar to what Hubble picked up last year, this shot shows a reddish tint around the northern pole.

“This may be due to heating from increased sunlight, which could either change the atmospheric circulation or perhaps remove ices from aerosols in the atmosphere,” says a NASA brief about the photo. “Another theory is that the increased sunlight in the summer months is changing the amounts of photochemical haze produced.”

The stunning shot also shows two of Saturn’s moons: Enceladus at the bottom center and Mimas on the right.

Unstoppable Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, having been launched by the space shuttle Discovery in 1990. It is being used here as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project, which aims to understand more about the gas giant planets in our solar system.

During Hubble’s three decades of operation, it has been serviced and upgraded five times by astronauts, thus increasing its lifespan and its ability to peer 13.4 billion light-years away from Earth, unimpeded by planet’s atmosphere, weather systems, and pollution. The space telescope has made 1.4 million observations in its lifetime.