Cassini Reveals That Saturn's Rings Mess With the Planet's Weather

Monday, 11 December 2017 - 7:28PM
Space
Solar System
Astronomy
No
Monday, 11 December 2017 - 7:28PM
Cassini Reveals That Saturn's Rings Mess With the Planet's Weather
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Good old Cassini - the probe that just keeps giving us new information, even after its fiery death.

While Cassini may have now burned up in the intense heat of Saturn's atmosphere (which prevented the probe from possibly leaving behind a colony of Earth bacteria on one of the planet's moons), the data sent to us from while the probe was still functioning has taught us something intriguing about how Saturn's rings affect the weather on the surface of the planet below.

It'll still take a long time for all of Cassini's findings to be fully unpacked, but one thing scientists have noticed about the atmosphere surrounding Saturn is that there's a significant difference in the amount of ionization on parts of the planet that are covered by the shadows of Saturn's rings. The rings are affecting tides of ionized particles that swirl around the planet, in much the same way that the moon impacts the tides of our oceans.

This has the effect of changing the weather patterns on the planet, stirring up the ionosphere surrounding the planet's fuzzy, incorporeal surface. While you couldn't actually "stand" on the planet, if you managed to visit Saturn, you'd have a very different vacation if you stood underneath the shadows of the planet's rings.




This is a tremendously exciting discovery, as it hints at just how unique Saturn is thanks to its rings, and also helps us to get a better understanding of how such rings might affect other planets both in our solar system and beyond.

This insight comes from the final chapter of Cassini's life - the preparation for its so-called "grand finale" - as the poor stalwart probe dived down onto Saturn's surface. In anticipation of its fatal last trip, much of the five months leading up to Cassini's demise involved taking the probe on increasingly dangerous missions down into Saturn's ionosphere, giving humanity the closest look at Saturn's surface that we've ever been able to achieve.

Of the probe's trips into Saturn's atmosphere, Iowa University Professor William Kurth said to Gizmodo:

Opening quote
"There was never any plan to go this close to Saturn...we're just getting our feet wet with the fresh data that we have... It's sad that the spacecraft is no longer with us, but it's left such a legacy in terms of observation not just for the last six months but the entire 13 years."
Closing quote


Cassini was truly a remarkably well-built probe. Its findings have helped us gain a far greater understanding of the planet Saturn and its surrounding moons, and the fact that it still has secrets to share even after its demise just goes to show how much can be learned from a single successful space mission.

 
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Cassini Reveals That Saturn's Rings Mess With Its Weather
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