NASA Discovers Mysterious Rays Moving Along Saturn’s Rings

NASA Discovers Mysterious Rays Moving Along Saturn’s Rings

NASA Discovers Mysterious Rays Moving Along Saturn's Rings

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Something unusual is happening in a new Hubble Space Telescope image of the picturesque ringed planet Saturn. The view is spectacular on its own, but zoom to the left side of its rings and look for a few dark, shady spots. These are “rays”.

The enigmatic rays appear and disappear according to the seasons. Saturn has four seasons, but it takes a long time to go through them, with each season lasting about seven years. The planet is crawling towards the autumnal equinox in its northern hemisphere in early 2025, but it has already entered what NASA calls “beam season”. It’s time for Hubble Observations to investigate rays.

Hubble is a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA released a video to accompany the new Hubble image. It includes images showing rays revolving around Saturn.

The red oval highlights the dark speckled rays in Saturn’s rings.

NASA, ESA and Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC); image processing by Alyssa Pagan (STScI); red oval by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Scientists first discovered the rays – which can appear light or dark depending on the angle – thanks to NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in the 1980s. “The cause of the rays, as well as their seasonal variability, have not yet been fully explained by planetary scientists,” NASA said in a statement Thursday.

There’s a likely explanation for the odd features, and it involves Saturn’s magnetic field.

“Planetary magnetic fields interact with the solar wind, creating an electrically charged environment,” NASA explained. (That’s how we get our nifty auroras on Earth.) “Scientists believe that the smallest dust-sized particles of ice rings can also become charged, causing these particles to temporarily levitate above above the rest of the larger ice particles and rocks in the rings.”

If true, the basic recipe for Saturn’s rays is icy particles plus a fluctuating magnetic field plus solar wind plus seasonal changes. The rays are expected to become more prominent as the equinox approaches, giving scientists a chance to make more observations and collect data that will explain what is happening.

Other planets in the solar system (here, you’re looking, gas giants) have rings, but scientists haven’t seen similar radii beyond Saturn. “It’s a fascinating magic trick of nature that we only see on Saturn – for now at least,” said NASA senior planetary scientist Amy Simon.


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