Saturn’s Rings

NASA’s Cassini Data Show Saturn’s Rings Relatively New

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Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

JoAnna Wendel
NASA Headquarters, Washington DC


An artist’s concept of the Cassini orbiter crossing Saturn’s ring plane. New measurements of the rings’ mass give scientists the best answer yet to the question of their age. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

The rings of Saturn may be iconic, but there was a time when the majestic gas giant existed without its distinctive halo. In fact, the rings may have formed much later than the planet itself, according to a new analysis of gravity science data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. 

The findings indicate that Saturn’s rings formed between 10 million and 100 million years ago. From our planet’s perspective, that means Saturn’s rings may have formed during the age of dinosaurs. 

The conclusions of the research – gleaned from measurements collected during the final, ultra-close orbits Cassini performed in 2017 as the spacecraft neared the end of its mission – are the best answer yet to a longstanding question in solar system science. The findings were published online Jan. 17 in Science.

 

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Scientists Finally Know What Time It Is on Saturn

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Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 

JoAnna Wendel 
NASA Headquarters, Washington DC

 

A view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016 as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice. A year on Saturn is 29 Earth years; days only last 10:33:38, according to a new analysis of Cassini data. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

Using new data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, researchers believe they have solved a longstanding mystery of solar system science: the length of a day on Saturn. It’s 10 hours, 33 minutes and 38 seconds. 

The figure has eluded planetary scientists for decades, because the gas giant has no solid surface with landmarks to track as it rotates, and it has an unusual magnetic field that hides the planet’s rotation rate.

The answer, it turned out, was hidden in the rings. 

 

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Saturn Spacecraft Samples Interstellar Dust

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Of the millions of dust grains Cassini has sampled at Saturn, a few dozen appear to have come from beyond our solar system. Scientists believe these special grains have interstellar origins because they moved much faster and in different directions compared to dusty material native to Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has detected the faint but distinct signature of dust coming from beyond our solar system. The research, led by a team of Cassini scientists primarily from Europe, is published this week in the journal Science.

Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004, studying the giant planet, its rings and its moons. The spacecraft has also sampled millions of ice-rich dust grains with its cosmic dust analyzer instrument. The vast majority of the sampled grains originate from active jets that spray from the surface of Saturn’s geologically active moon Enceladus.

But among the myriad microscopic grains collected by Cassini, a special few — just 36 grains — stand out from the crowd. Scientists conclude these specks of material came from interstellar space — the space between the stars. 

Alien dust in the solar system is not unanticipated. In the 1990s, the ESA/NASA Ulysses mission made the first in-situ observations of this material, which were later confirmed by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. The dust was traced back to the local interstellar cloud: a nearly empty bubble of gas and dust that our solar system is traveling through with a distinct direction and speed.

“From that discovery, we always hoped we would be able to detect these interstellar interlopers at Saturn with Cassini. We knew that if we looked in the right direction, we should find them,” said Nicolas Altobelli, Cassini project scientist at ESA (European Space Agency) and lead author of the study. “Indeed, on average, we have captured a few of these dust grains per year, travelling at high speed and on a specific path quite different from that of the usual icy grains we collect around Saturn.”

The tiny dust grains were speeding through the Saturn system at over 45,000 mph (72,000 kilometers per hour), fast enough to avoid being trapped inside the solar system by the gravity of the sun and its planets.

“We’re thrilled Cassini could make this detection, given that our instrument was designed primarily to measure dust from within the Saturn system, as well as all the other demands on the spacecraft,” said Marcia Burton, a Cassini fields and particles scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and a co-author of the paper.

Importantly, unlike Ulysses and Galileo, Cassini was able to analyze the composition of the dust for the first time, showing it to be made of a very specific mixture of minerals, not ice. The grains all had a surprisingly similar chemical make-up, containing major rock-forming elements like magnesium, silicon, iron and calcium in average cosmic proportions. Conversely, more reactive elements like sulfur and carbon were found to be less abundant compared to their average cosmic abundance. 

“Cosmic dust is produced when stars die, but with the vast range of types of stars in the universe, we naturally expected to encounter a huge range of dust types over the long period of our study,” said Frank Postberg of the University of Heidelberg, a co-author of the paper and co-investigator of Cassini’s dust analyzer.

Stardust grains are found in some types of meteorites, which have preserved them since the birth of our solar system. They are generally old, pristine and diverse in their composition. But surprisingly, the grains detected by Cassini aren’t like that. They have apparently been made rather uniform through some repetitive processing in the interstellar medium, the researchers said.

The authors speculate on how this processing of dust might take place: Dust in a star-forming region could be destroyed and recondense multiple times as shock waves from dying stars passed through, resulting in grains like the ones Cassini observed streaming into our solar system.

“The long duration of the Cassini mission has enabled us to use it like a micrometeorite observatory, providing us privileged access to the contribution of dust from outside our solar system that could not have been obtained in any other way,” said Altobelli.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cosmic Dust Analyzer is supported by the German Aerospace Center (DLR); the instrument is managed by the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

For more information about Cassini, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/cassini or http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

 

Icy Tendrils Reaching into Saturn Ring Traced to Their Source

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This collage, consisting of two Cassini images of long, sinuous, tendril-like features from Saturn’s moon Enceladus and two corresponding computer simulations of the same, illustrates how well the structures, and the sizes of the particles composing them, can be modeled by tracing the trajectories of tiny, icy grains ejected from Enceladus’ south polar geysers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Long, sinuous, tendril-like structures seen in the vicinity of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus originate directly from geysers erupting from its surface, according to scientists studying images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

This result is published online today in a study in the Astronomical Journal, along with additional insights into the nature of the structures.

“We’ve been able to show that each unique tendril structure can be reproduced by particular sets of geysers on the moon’s surface,” said Colin Mitchell, a Cassini imaging team associate at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and lead author of the paper. Mitchell and colleagues used computer simulations to follow the trajectories of ice grains ejected from individual geysers. The geysers, which were discovered by Cassini in 2005, are jets of tiny water ice particles, water vapor and simple organic compounds.

Under certain lighting conditions, Cassini’s wide-view images showing icy material erupting from Enceladus reveal faint, finger-like features, dubbed “tendrils” by the imaging team. The tendrils reach into Saturn’s E ring — the ring in which Enceladus orbits — extending tens of thousands of miles (or kilometers) away from the moon. Since the tendrils were discovered, scientists have thought they were the result of the moon’s geysering activity and the means by which Enceladus supplies material to the E ring. But the ghostly features had never before been traced directly to geysers on the surface.

Because the team was able to show that tendril structures of different shapes correspond to different sizes of geyser particles, the team was able to zero in on the sizes of the particles forming them. They found the tendrils are composed of particles with diameters no smaller than about a hundred thousandth of an inch, a size consistent with the measurements of E-ring particles made by other Cassini instruments.

As the researchers examined images from different times and positions around Saturn, they also found that the detailed appearance of the tendrils changes over time. “It became clear to us that some features disappeared from one image to the next,” said John Weiss, an imaging team associate at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, and an author on the paper.

The authors suspect that changes in the tendrils’ appearance likely result from the cycle of tidal stresses — squeezing and stretching of the moon as it orbits Saturn — and its control of the widths of fractures from which the geysers erupt. The stronger the tidal stresses raised by Saturn at any point on the fractures, the wider the fracture opening and the greater the eruption of material. The authors will investigate in future work whether this theory explains the tendrils’ changing appearance.

There is even more that can be extracted from the images, the scientists say. “As the supply lanes for Saturn’s E ring, the tendrils give us a way to ascertain how much mass is leaving Enceladus and making its way into Saturn orbit,” said Carolyn Porco, team leader for the imaging experiment and a coauthor on the paper. “So, another important step is to determine how much mass is involved, and thus estimate how much longer the moon’s sub-surface ocean may last.” An estimate of the lifetime of the ocean is important in understanding the evolution of Enceladus over long timescales.

Because of its significance to the investigation of possible extraterrestrial habitable zones, Enceladus is a major target of investigation for the final years of the Cassini mission. Many observations, including imaging of the plume and tendril features, and thermal observations of the surface of its south polar geyser basin, are planned during the next couple of years.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The Cassini imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

New images released today can be found at:

http://www.ciclops.org/view_event/205

More information about Cassini, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov