Swedish magnetosphere conference was out of this world

Image: NASA/JPL–Caltech

The Magnetosphere of the Outer Planets conference, held in Sweden last month, was the 20th in this prestigious series and featured exciting new results from Cassini’s Grand Finale mission at Saturn and the JUNO mission at Jupiter

This conference is convened only once every two years, and this year was hosted in Uppsala, Sweden, at the Ångström Laboratory. The event is renowned for attracting the best and brightest minds in space science to present and discuss research regarding Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and their many moons.

The magnetospheres of the outer planets provide important comparisons for understanding how the Earth’s magnetosphere protects us from solar radiation and extreme space weather events. They also provide insight into how magnetospheres could be generated at exoplanets and even more exotic astrophysical bodies such as brown dwarfs and high luminosity stars.

The week began with an air of grandeur, at an icebreaker at Museum Gustavianum. Exhibits include a 16th century anatomical theatre and artefacts from across the ancient world excavated by Uppsala University archaeologists. The atmosphere was informal and relaxed as scientists prepared for the discussions ahead.

The conference programme has in recent years been dominated by the NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens mission. Since 2004 this exploratory endeavour has opened our eyes to the many wonders of the Saturnian system. Violent year-long storms were observed raging within Saturn’s atmosphere, solar storms were observed to compress the Saturnian magnetosphere to nearly half its usual size, and an historic landing was made by the Huygens probe on the Earth-like moon Titan. Cassini discovered and even sampled the sub-surface water ocean of the moon Enceladus by flying directly through icy jets emanating from the moon’s south pole.

This year, exciting new results were presented from Cassini’s Grand Finale. This consists of a daring set of proximal orbits between Saturn and its rings to investigate the magnetic field structure and atmosphere in previously unobserved regions. Sadly, following this, Cassini will run out of fuel and will be instructed to perform a death-dive into the planet itself. This is necessary to avoid contaminating moons of Saturn which may harbour conditions favourable for life.

A further exciting development was the first results to stem from the NASA JUNO mission and coincident ground-based observing campaigns. The JUNO spacecraft is in a polar orbit and is examining the composition and structure of the Jovian interior and atmosphere, and how the planet’s colossal magnetic field is generated. These results appear to be turning our knowledge of the planet on our head and one talk even showed how Jupiter’s northern and southern aurora appear quite different to one another.

Packed out poster sessions featured many further groundbreaking discoveries, and a guest speaker from a notable theoretician drew interesting comparisons with stellar magnetospheres. A mid-week event, Lighting the Giant Planet Aurora, also engaged members of the public and featured conference speakers discussing the past, present and future of auroral research at Earth and the outer planets.

The memorable week was poignantly accentuated at Upsalla Castle, or “Slottet”, by an end-of-week conference banquet which further highlighted Uppsala’s rich heritage.

The conference was judged by attendees to be an astronomical success. As a result, it was decided that this event should be convened in 2018 as well as in 2019. Next year the conference will be hosted in Boulder, Colorado – an event the community eagerly awaits.

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Ravi Desai

Ravi Desai

Ravi Desai is a PhD candidate at University College London and a member of the Cassini Project Science Group. His research primarily focuses on Cassini observations of Saturn’s magnetosphere and moons but also extends to plasma processes occurring at Jupiter and Venus.
Ravi Desai

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