It’s not easy to gather data on Saturn because of the fact that the planet’s gaseous atmosphere is nearly impossible to penetrate, but scientists at an Israeli university appear to have solved that problem. According to their new data, Saturn’s period of one rotation is actually 6 minutes shorter than currently stated in physics textbooks, states the Empire State Tribune.
Saturn: Data from both Voyager and Cassini proved unreliable
While 6 minutes may not sound like a huge difference, it will certainly affect further scientific studies of Saturn, said Ravit Helled, a planetary scientist at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “We used to think that we knew the rotation period, considered a basic property of any planet,” she says.
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The confusion arose thanks to conflicting data from the Voyager spacecraft, which flew past Saturn in the early 1980s, and the Cassini spacecraft which traveled there in 2004. The two spacecraft measured rotation periods of 10 hours and 39 minutes and 10 hours and 47 minutes respectively.
“Since then, there has been this big open question concerning Saturn’s rotation period,” said Helled. “In the last few years, there have been different theoretical attempts to pin down an answer.”
New result for rotation period
Now it appears that neither spacecraft accurately recorded the rotation period. Helled’s latest work produced a figure of 10 hours and 33 minutes using Saturn’s magnetic field to calculate its spin rate.
The reason that the difference is important is that it implies that the atmosphere at Saturn’s equator is spinning faster than the data gathered by the Voyager spacecraft would suggest.
“The rotation period of a giant planet is a fundamental physical property, and its value affects many aspects of the physics of these planets, including their interior structure and atmospheric dynamics,” Helled says.
The fact that neither Voyager nor Cassini were able to accurately measure the rotation period of Saturn goes to show the difficulty of taking measurements from the gas giant, but it seems that Helled and her team have reached a viable answer to the mystery.