Final Cassini Images Shed Light On Origin Of Saturn’s Rings

Even though the Cassini Saturn mission ended nearly two years ago when the spacecraft plunged into the gas giant’s atmosphere, NASA continues to analyze the data sent back from the spacecraft from just before the mission ended. Now, new data analysis reveals that Saturn’s rings weren’t smooth, but grainy in texture. The final Cassini images not only show more detail but also potential information on the origin of Saturn’s rings.

The new analysis reveals straw-like patterns that suggest that the ring structure may be much more complex and detailed than we already thought. It’s no secret that Saturn‘s rings have immense influence on the planet and its surroundings. An earlier study revealed that the rings were influencing the shapes of the moons that orbit the planet. Now, new analysis suggests that the moons also interact with the particles in the rings, causing the changes in the texture.

This interaction can tell us more about the origin of Saturn’s rings, as well as the formation of other planets. The researchers discovered mysterious streaks located in the outer edges of the rings, which are all the same length and orientation. Their findings suggest that the material formed in the rings at the same time, and that the said material was already in orbit around Saturn, and doesn’t belong to the asteroids or comets which collided with the planet in the past.

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“These new details of how the moons are sculpting the rings in various ways provide a window into solar system formation, where you also have disks evolving under the influence of masses embedded within them,” lead author and Cassini scientist Matt Tiscareno of the SETI Institute said in a statement.

Scientists named three types of textures spotted by Cassini’s final images. The textures found can be clumpy, smooth or streaky, with the textures occurring in unique bands on the rings.

Future study to discovery more clues as to the origin of Saturn’s rings includes trying to explain why there are sharp boundaries in the different textures, and whether it was really impacts of the planet’s satellites or some other entity surrounding Saturn’s orbit.

“This tells us the way the rings look is not just a function of how much material there is,” Tiscareno said in the same statement. “There has to be something different about the characteristics of the particles, perhaps affecting what happens when two ring particles collide and bounce off each other. And we don’t yet know what it is.”

“It’s like turning the power up one more notch on what we could see in the rings. Everyone just got a clearer view of what’s going on,” Project Scientist Linda Spilker, based at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California said. “Getting that extra resolution answered many questions, but so many tantalizing ones remain.”