Scientists Find Saturn’s Rings Blast the Planet With ‘Organic’ Rain

Scientists have revealed that Saturn’s rings are raining down a weird organic cocktail onto the planet, and scientists finally know what it is.

Thanks to data obtained from the Cassini spacecraft, which plunged into Saturn in September of 2017, scientists have managed to find out just how complex the planet’s ring system is.

According to a new study published in Science (actually six different studies) suggests that the rings on Saturn are raining down as much as 10,000 kilograms of frozen material onto the fas giant every second.

Saturn and its rings. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Saturn and its rings. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“This is a new element of how our Solar System works,” said astronomer and physicist Thomas Cravens of the University of Kansas.

“Two things surprised me. One is the chemical complexity of what was coming off the rings – we thought it would be almost entirely water based on what we saw in the past. The second thing is the sheer quantity of it – a lot more than we originally expected. The quality and quantity of the materials the rings are putting into the atmosphere surprised me.”

Scientists believe how this data can help us redefine what we know about planetary rings and how they form, as well as revolutionize our understanding of how the solar system we live in works.

And its all thanks to Cassini.

The 20-year Cassini mission culminated in a series of wild orbits.

First, it brushed the outer edge of Saturn’s rings and then, in the final phase, plunged through the narrow gap between the planet and its icy rings before plunging and disintegrating in the planet’s upper atmosphere.

This illustration imagines the view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft during one of its final dives between Saturn and its innermost rings, as part of the mission's Grand Finale. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This illustration imagines the view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during one of its final dives between Saturn and its innermost rings, as part of the mission’s Grand Finale. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Each article in this collection provides new observations and perspectives on this previously unexplored region of the planet, reports NASA.

Hsiang-Wen Hsu, from the University of Colorado Boulder, United States, and his colleagues determined the composition of the dust particles that fall from the rings to the planet.

Although Saturn’s main rings are thought to be composed of more than 95 percent water ice, the materials that make up the rest of the rings have remained elusive.

As the Cassini spacecraft flew through the gap between the gas giant’s rings, it allowed the analysis of the “rain of rings” and identified silicate grains and water ice of up to ten nanometers in size.

According to Hsu and his colleagues, the percentage of silicate that falls on the planet as dust is greater than the bulk silicate content of the rings.

The dust grains that fall on the planet were also the subject of study in an article by Donald Mitchell, a scientist at NASA and the Laboratory of Applied Physics at Johns Hopkins University, United States, and his colleagues, who discuss the atmospheric physics that makes these grains fall out of orbit and enter Saturn’s atmosphere.

The new study has also revealed that Saturn’s innermost D ring is hurling dust grains coated in its chemical cocktail into the planet’s upper atmosphere at an extraordinary rate as it spins.

Scientists explain that over long timescales, this material is able to change the carbon and oxygen content of the gas giant’s atmosphere.

“This is a new element of how our solar system works,” said Thomas Cravens, professor of physics & astronomy at the University of Kansas and a co-author of the new paper.

“Two things surprised me. One is the chemical complexity of what was coming off the rings — we thought it would be almost entirely water based on what we saw in the past. The second thing is the sheer quantity of it — a lot more than we originally expected. The quality and quantity of the materials the rings are putting into the atmosphere surprised me.”

According to Science Alert, other discoveries made during those 22 ring dives include a previously unknown radiation belt between Saturn and its rings and an electric current that runs along magnetic field lines between the D ring and Saturn’s atmosphere.

Source
Chemical interactions between Saturn’s atmosphere and its rings
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