Groundbreaking Saturn discoveries from the NASA Cassini spacecraft

Groundbreaking Saturn discoveries from the NASA Cassini spacecraft
Illustration: NASA's Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Groundbreaking Saturn discoveries have been published in research journals this week, following the end of the NASA Cassini spacecraft which has been orbiting Saturn.

The NASA Cassini spacecraft ended its mission orbiting Saturn in September 2017 and the end-of-mission results have been published, highlighting some groundbreaking Saturn discoveries.

The NASA Cassini spacecraft

Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said: “Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”

Saturn’s magnetic field: the latest discoveries

The latest data from the Cassini mission has revealed more structure in Saturn’s magnetic field. The Cassini mission aimed to measure the miscropic material of Saturn’s rings. To do this, the Cassini had to undertake risky manouevres to travel at 75,000 miles per hour underneath Saturn’s rings. Discussing the mission to analyse Saturn’s rings. Sascha Kempf, a research associate and associate physics professor at LASP said: “This is the first time that pieces from Saturn’s rings have been analyzed with a human-made instrument.”

The results showed that during eight orbits, the Cosmic Dust Analyzer caught over 2,700 charged bits of dust. The researchers calculated that this would create enough ring rain to send approximately one metric ton of material into the atmosphere of Saturn per second.They believe that the particles got there by moving along the magnetic field of Saturn like a yo-yo before colliding into Saturn’s atmosphere.

They also discovered that most of the particles were made up of water ice, as well as tiny silicates which make up many space rocks. This may lead to answering the question of how old Saturn’s rings are.

The formation of the magnetic field remains a mystery.

The end of the NASA Cassini spacecraft mission

Despite the end of the NASA Cassini spacecraft mission, the massive amount of data collected will mean that a series of groundbreaking Saturn discoveries will continue to emerge in the coming years. Linda Spilker is the NASA Cassini spacecraft project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Spilker said: “Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying. But, we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too[…]Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years.”
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