Cassini Just Solved the Mystery of What Saturn's Rings Are Made Of

Tuesday, 17 October 2017 - 10:45AM
Space
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Tuesday, 17 October 2017 - 10:45AM
Cassini Just Solved the Mystery of What Saturn's Rings Are Made Of
Space probe Cassini continues to teach us new secrets even from beyond the grave. The spacecraft may have met its fiery end in the crushing embrace of Saturn's gravitational pull in September, but there's still plenty more to learn from the findings that it sent us over the course of its 13-year mission.

New evidence from data that the probe took before its demise has revealed something that astronomers have wondered about for a long time: What exactly are Saturn's rings made of?

We've known for a while that the icy rings around Saturn regularly generate rain that falls onto the planet below. It had always been assumed that this ice might be made primarily from water, but without solid data, it wasn't possible to confirm.

Now, thanks to data from Cassini's Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), we know exactly what materials are present in the planet's magnetosphere: a layer of empty space around Saturn's orbit that's created thanks to the planet's naturally forming solar winds.

Even as it hurtled downwards into an explosive collision with Saturn, Cassini was still submitting data, allowing us to gain a good picture of the makeup of the particles that are present between the planet's rings and its surface.

As expected, scientists spotted water particles, suggesting that over time, ice from Saturn's rings succumbs to the planet's gravity and is pulled downwards in the form of rain. That, however, wasn't the only chemical compound present in the magnetosphere - Cassini also spotted methane among the raindrops during its final descent.




If methane rain sounds familiar to anyone who's been keeping up with Cassini's exploits, it's because the nearby moon of Titan also experiences this particular compound falling in liquid rain form. Clearly, the makeup of Saturn's rings and its moons aren't all that dissimilar, which isn't much of a surprise, all things considered.

That said, scientists aren't yet willing to speculate on the particulars on how methane came to be present Saturn's magnetosphere.

Of course, it's possible that the planet may have elements present in the magnetosphere that don't specifically come from the rings themselves, and that this is just a coincidence. Alas, the only useful tool we had in the planet's orbit that might have helped us to uncover the secrets of Saturn's methane supply is no longer functional.

It's incredible just how much we learned about Saturn over the years from Cassini's hard work. We're still a long way from knowing everything about the solar system, but thanks to one particularly hardworking little probe, we've managed to gain a much better understanding of one of our most interesting neighboring planets and the many moons that circle around it.

With luck, perhaps one day in the future we'll be able to get a better look at Saturn and its rings, but in the meantime, this data provides an intriguing new glimpse as to what's literally going down, over on the other side of the solar system.
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