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Chandra X-ray Image of Saturn
(Credit: NASA/U. Hamburg/J.Ness et al.)

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X-rays from Saturn Pose Puzzles

Credit: X-ray: NASA/U. Hamburg/J.Ness et al; Optical: NASA/STScI

Chandra's image of Saturn held some surprises for the observers.First, Saturn's 90 megawatts of X-radiation is concentrated near the equator. This is different from a similar gaseous giant planet, Jupiter, where the most intense X-rays are associated with the strong magnetic field near its poles.

Saturn's X-ray spectrum, or the distribution of its X-rays according to energy, was found to be similar to that of X-rays from the Sun. This indicates that Saturn's X-radiation is due to the reflection of solar X-rays by Saturn's atmosphere. The intensity of these reflected X-rays was unexpectedly strong.

Further observations should help clarify the nature of Saturn's X-radiation, and determine whether Saturn's magnetic polar regions ever flare up in X-rays, as do Jupiter's. The features outside of Saturn's disk in the X-ray image are instrumental artifacts or "noise".

The optical image of Saturn is also due to the reflection of light from the Sun - visible wavelength light in this case - but the optical and X-ray images obviously have dramatic differences. The optical image is much brighter, and shows the beautiful ring structures, which were not detected in X-rays. This is because the Sun emits about a million times more power in visible light than in X-rays, and X-rays reflect much less efficiently from Saturn's atmosphere and rings.

Fast Facts for Saturn:
Credit  X-ray: NASA/U. Hamburg/J.Ness et al; Optical: NASA/STScI
Scale  Image is 42.0 arcsec across.
Category  Solar System
Coordinates (J2000)  RA | Dec
Constellation  null
Observation Dates  April 14-15, 2003
Observation Time  20 hours
Obs. IDs  3725, 4433
Color Code  Energy (Red 0.4 - 0.6 keV; Green 0.6 - 0.8 keV; Blue 0.8 - 1.0 keV)
Instrument  ACIS
References J. Ness et al. 2004 Astronomy & Astrophysics (March 8 issue) also astro-ph/0401270
Distance Estimate  1.2 billion kilometers
Release Date  March 08, 2004