Monday, 19 August, 2019

Last Readings From Dead Space Probe Reveal Something Surprising About Saturn's Rings

Rainfall detected on Saturn's moon Titan Image courtesy Pixabay
Sandra Phillips | 21 January, 2019, 23:28

In the next 100 million years, Saturn's rings will completely disappear, and, as revealed by a new Science study, planetary scientists have realized that it acquired its rings only very recently.

An Italian-led team reported January 17 in the journal Science that Saturn's primary rings appear to be just 10 million to 100 million years old. In other words, the rings probably formed during the time that dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Grand Finale was the official name of the Cassini spacecraft's last act: a risky orbit between the rings and the planet's atmosphere in a daring attempt to probe the planet from up close, right before the craft went up in flames.

Before Cassini spacecraft's fatal plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, it repeatedly flew through the gas giant's rings and its cloud tops.

Thanks to measurements from Cassini's final trajectory, researchers were able to estimate the amount of material in the rings.

This allowed the team to accurately measure the gravitational field around the planet without the gravitational effect of the rings getting in the way, according to study author Luciano Iess of the Sapienza University of Rome.

"And with this work, Cassini fulfils a fundamental goal of its mission: not only to determine the mass of the rings, but to use the information to refine models and determine the age of the rings". Saturn only acquired its rings relatively recently, and for most of its existence it has been as bare as Earth.

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A team from the University of California analysed data from the Cassini probe and found that the rings are less than half as heavy as Mimas, which is one of Saturn's moons. More than that, it is very likely that the rings formed a lot later than the planet. They can do this by comparing the mass of the rings and the mass of the bright, visible components. With a better calculation of ring mass, scientists were better able to estimate the rings' age.

Kaspi and Galanti joined the Cassini team following their work as part of NASA's Juno science team, which had employed a similar orbit to produce the most reliable measurements yet of Jupiter's atmospheric depth.

The findings showed that they respond to vibrations within the planet itself, acting similarly to the seismometers used to measure movement caused by earthquakes. The researchers estimate that the lower layer takes nine minutes longer to rotate than the clouds above the equator, which circle the planet once every 10 hours and 33 minutes. However, Saturn is different. "That turned out to be massive flows in the atmosphere at least 9,000 kilometers deep around the equatorial region". These elements are believed to total 15-18 times the mass of Earth, which is about 15% of the mass of Saturn.

Cassini managed to accomplish its mission admirably. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

Cassini was launched from Florida in 1997. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the US and several European countries.

Saturn rings were discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610, who considered their three major satellites.

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