Using Saturn’s Rings to Figure out What’s Inside the Planet

An illustration of the Cassini probe. Measurements of the mass of Saturn's rings taken by Cassini allow scientists to estimate the age of the rings. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s tough to see inside of Saturn, because the atmosphere is opaque to all wavelengths of radiation. We have to rely on computer simulations and physics-based guesswork to try to understand the interior of that giant world. But researchers are becoming more adept at a different technique: looking for the slightest motions in the rings of Saturn.

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Cassini Saw Methane in Enceladus’ Plumes. Scientists Don’t Know How it Could be There Without Life

Even though the Cassini mission at Saturn ended nearly four years ago, data from the spacecraft still keeps scientists busy. And the latest research using Cassini’s wealth of data might be the most enticing yet.

Researchers say they’ve detected methane in the plumes of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. The process for how the methane is produced is not known at this time, but the study suggests that the surprisingly large amount of methane found are likely coming from activity at hydrothermal vents present on Enceladus’s interior seafloor. These vents could be very similar those found in Earth’s oceans, where microorganisms live, feed on the energy from the vents and produce methane in a process called methanogenesis.

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Animation Shows how Saturn’s Rings Move at Different Speeds

Saturn’s rings are one of the most recognized and revered celestial objects known to the human race. From a distance, they look like a disk of layered crystal or multicolored disks within disks that wrap around Saturn’s hazy umber face. When viewed up close, we see that these rings are actually particles of water ice (from microns to icebergs), as well as silicates, carbon dioxide, and ammonia.

We would also noticed that the rings have some interesting orbital mechanics. In fact, each ring has a different orbit that is the result of its proximity to Saturn (i.e., the closer they are, the faster they orbit). To illustrate what this complex system look like, NASA Fellow Dr. James O’Donoghue created a stunning animation that shows how each of Saturn’s major ring segments (A-Ring to F-Ring) orbit together around the planet.

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Saturn Got Its Tilt From Its Moons

One of the fundamental tenets of physics is that two objects, now matter how different their size, exert a force on each other. In most cases the size makes a big difference, with the larger objects enacting a much greater force on the smaller one. 

However, over long periods of time, even much smaller objects can have an effect on the larger object in the pair.  Recently a team of researchers from CNRS, the Sorbonne, and the University of Pisa have found an example of the smaller object, or in this case group of objects, having an outsized impact on the larger one.  They have discovered that Saturn’s moons actually caused its famous tilt.

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Sunrises Across the Solar System

Scientists have learned a lot about the atmospheres on various worlds in our Solar System simply from planetary sunrises or sunsets. Sunlight streaming through the haze of an atmosphere can be separated into its component colors to create spectra, just as prisms do with sunlight. From the spectra, astronomers can interpret the measurements of light to reveal the chemical makeup of an atmosphere.

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Titan is Drifting Away from Saturn Surprisingly Quickly

Titan in front of Saturn. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Where did Saturn’s bizarro-moon Titan form? Did it form where it is now, or has it migrated? We have decades of data to look back on, so scientists should have some idea.

A new study based on all that data says that Titan is drifting away from Saturn more quickly than thought, and that has implications for where the moon initially formed.

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Gas and Dust Stop Planets From Eating Their Moons

Beyond Earth’s only satellite (the Moon), the Solar System is packed full of moons. In fact, Jupiter alone has 79 known natural satellites while Saturn has the most know moons of any astronomical body – a robust 82. For the longest time, astronomers have theorized that moons form from circumplanetary disks around a parent planet and that the moons and planet form alongside each other.

However, scientists have conducted multiple numerical simulations that have shown this theory to be flawed. What’s more, the results of these simulations are inconsistent with what we see throughout the Solar System. Thankfully, a team of Japanese researchers recently conducted a series of simulations that yielded a better model of how disks of gas and dust can form the kinds of moon systems that we see today.

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Astronomers Find 20 – Yes 20 – New Moons for Saturn

The reign of Jupiter, named after the father of the Olympian gods, has been long and sweet. Aside from being the largest planet in the Solar System, it was this gas giant that demonstrated in the 17th century that planets other than Earth can support a system of moons. Between its size, powerful magnetic field, and system of 79 moons, Jupiter looked set to remain the king of the planets indefinitely.

But it looks like Saturn, named after the father of Jupiter in Greco-Roman mythology, might have just knocked Jupiter off that pedestal. Thanks to a team led by famed astronomer Scott S. Sheppard 20 new moons have been discovered orbiting Saturn. That brings the total number of Saturnian (or Cronian) satellites to 82, putting it ahead of Jupiter’s 79. And the best part? You can help name them!

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