Findings released from Cassini Spacecraft ‘Grand Finale’ dives in between rings of Saturn

Oct 9, 2018

Findings from the Cassini spacecraft’s Grand Finale were released last week, revealing some astounding new information about Saturn and its rings.

During Cassini’s last leg of its 21-year-long journey, the Cassini mission team “went for gold,” steering the spacecraft spectacularly close to the planet, where it was never designed to fly. Cassini dove in between the rings of Saturn and its upper clouds 22 times, after which, the craft was deliberately vaporized in the atmosphere.

The spacecraft was pushed to its limits, flying through icy, rocky ring particles, where it probed the magnetized environment, and “sniffed” the atmosphere in between the 1,200-mile (2,000-kilometer) gap between Saturn’s rings and the cloud tops.

Computer simulation showing Cassini spacecraft in orbit NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Grand Finale also demonstrated how “powerful” and “agile” Cassini’s instruments really were.

While the spacecraft went down in September 2017, now some of the findings have been published in the Journal of Science on Oct. 5, 2018, with more results yet to come.

Complex organic compounds embedded in water nanograins were said to “rain” down from the rings to the planet’s upper atmosphere. Some falling particles take on electric charges and spiral along Saturn’s magnetic field lines.

Also, it was found that such material is falling out of the rings much faster than scientists once thought, at a rate of 22,000 pounds per second, and comprise mostly nanometer-sized particles (like smoke).

The rings are also more interconnected than first thought. Additionally, there is an electric current system connecting the rings and the atmosphere.

A newly discovered “radiation belt” was found running around Saturn, and it was revealed just how precisely Saturn’s magnetic field is aligned with its spin axis, with a difference of less than 0.0095 degrees, far more precisely than Earth’s alignment, which has an 11-degree difference.

Illustration showing details of Cassini Grand Finale findings NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists still do not understand how or why Saturn even has a magnetic field at all; based on current understanding, it should not have one.

Cassini also traversed Saturn’s poles and examined one of the only non-terrestrial, radio-generating locations that scientists have been able to study anywhere in the universe.

For now, though, many mysteries still remain as the Cassini team, comprising scientists from NASA, Cal-Tech, ESA, and the Italian Space Agency, still have many more pieces of the puzzle to put together.

Computer simulation showing Cassini spacecraft diving in between Saturn’s rings and its upper clouds NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Illustration of Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

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