5 things we’ve learned about Saturn since Cassini died

The craft’s last data reveal new details about the gas planet’s clouds and rings

Cassini image of Saturn

COMING INTO FOCUS  Saturn shines in this Cassini image taken in October 2013. Even though the spacecraft is gone, scientists are still learning from its 13 years’ worth of data.

JPL-Caltech/NASA, SSI, Cornell Univ.

THE WOODLANDS, Texas — It’s been six months since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft plunged to its doom in the atmosphere of Saturn, but scientists didn’t spend much time mourning. They got busy, analyzing the spacecraft’s final data.

The Cassini mission ended September 15, 2017, after more than 13 years orbiting Saturn (SN Online: 9/15/17). The spacecraft’s final 22 orbits, dubbed the Grand Finale, sent Cassini into the potentially dangerous region between the gas giant and its rings, and its final orbit sent it directly into Saturn’s atmosphere.

That perspective helped solve mysteries about the planet and its moons that could not be tackled any other way, scientists said March 19 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

“In so many ways, the Grand Finale orbits provided information that was totally unexpected,” said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “So many of our models were not correct.”

Here are five things we now know and a few outstanding mysteries.

1. Saturn’s clouds go deep

Those final daredevil orbits allowed Cassini to measure the gravity of Saturn and its rings independent of one another. Looking at the planet’s gravity field alone revealed that the swirling bands of clouds penetrate much deeper into the planet than expected.

Astronomers this month announced a similar discovery for an even larger gas giant, reporting that the Juno spacecraft, which is orbiting Jupiter, had found that the planet’s rotating cloud belts reach roughly 3,000 kilometers below the top of the atmosphere.

Saturn’s clouds reach a few times deeper than that. “This was an astonishing result,” Spilker said.

“People used to think that maybe Saturn was just a slightly smaller version of Jupiter, but it’s evident that that’s not the case,” says planetary scientist Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, who was not involved in the gravity measurements. The difference speaks to how diverse planets are, he says. “Every place you look, everywhere we’ve been to, it’s just been so dramatically different and unique.”

2. Ring rain is eroding the innermost ring

Grains of ice from the rings are raining down into Saturn’s atmosphere, Cassini’s final orbits confirmed. This “ring rain” idea has been suggested since the 1980s, but only by tasting the atmosphere and directly sampling the space between Saturn and the rings could Cassini confirm the rains are real.

In its last five full orbits, Cassini found a zoo of organic molecules in and just above Saturn’s atmosphere, said planetary scientist Kelly Miller of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. The spacecraft found a lot of water, which wasn’t surprising — water makes up about 90 percent of the rings. But there were also a lot of hydrocarbons similar to propane, plus some methane and sulfur-bearing molecules.

The types of molecules became less well-mixed as the spacecraft looked deeper into Saturn’s atmosphere, which is what would happen if the particles came from the rings and sank at different speeds. The researchers think this material is especially raining from Saturn’s D ring, the thin innermost ring. Other Cassini data suggest this ring is losing mass.

“The D ring is slowly being eroded away and going into the planet,” Spilker said.

3. Organics could explain mysterious ring hues

The organics in the ring rain could solve a debate about why Saturn’s rings appear reddish in some spots.

“We’ve had this debate going on for a couple of years now — are they red because of good old-fashioned rust like Mars, or because of the same kinds of organic materials … that make carrots and tomatoes and watermelon red?” said planetary scientist Jeff Cuzzi of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “To me, this answers the question of what makes the rings red: It’s organics.”

It’s still not clear where the organics come from, though. They could be created within the rings, or they could come from cosmic dust from the tails of comets. Miller and her colleagues are comparing the ring rain molecules with data on comet 67P, which the Rosetta spacecraft observed, to see how well they match up (SN: 11/11/17, p. 32).

4. Titan’s “magic islands” aren’t islands, or bubbles

Mysterious disappearing features in the lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan are caused by sunlight reflecting off giant waves, said planetary scientist Alexander Hayes of Cornell University.

infrared image of Saturn
SUN GLINT This infrared image taken by Cassini in 2014 shows a bright, mirrorlike reflection (yellow spot at upper left) in Kraken Mare, a northern sea on Saturn’s moon Titan. That reflection combined with radar data suggests that what were thought to be mysterious disappearing islands in the sea are actually tall waves. JPL-Caltech/NASA, Univ. of Arizona, Univ. of Idaho

These features were named “magic islands” when they were first spotted in 2014. As recently as April 2017, planetary scientists thought they had the islands solved: They seemed to be the result of champagnelike bubbles of nitrogen burbling through the moon’s methane and ethane seas (SN Online: 4/18/17).

But Hayes presented newly analyzed data from August 2014, when Cassini looked at Kraken Mare, the moon’s largest northern sea, in radar and infrared wavelengths within two hours of each other. The radar images showed a magic island, and the infrared ones showed a peak in brightness at the same spot.

Because the observations were taken two hours apart, the island probably couldn’t have been due to bubbles, Hayes said — bubbles would pop or disperse too quickly. Instead, he thinks the brightening could be the glint of sunlight reflecting directly off of giant waves on the lake, like how the ocean ripples with gold at sunset. Simulations of Titan’s atmosphere suggest these waves could be raised by winds as slow as 0.5 meters per second, which would barely move a wind vane on Earth.

5. Enceladus’ plumes may brighten by the pull of another moon

Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus has plumes that may be driven by nudges from another moon.

The spurts of liquid water were discovered in 2006. Over the next six years, scientists noticed that the plumes varied in brightness (a proxy for how much material is gushing from the moon) on a daily cycle, probably driven by Saturn’s different positions in Enceladus’ sky.

Then, in 2015 some researchers noted that the plumes’ overall brightness had been decreasing since the beginning of the Cassini mission.

One possible explanation was that the plumes changed with Saturn’s seasons. Another was that ice built up in the vents, clogging them and decreasing the flow. But looking at the full 13-year dataset, planetary scientist Francis Nimmo found that the plumes grow brighter in a regular cycle every four and 11 years. The pattern is too coherent to be explained by clogged vents, said Nimmo, of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Oddly, the plume grew brighter in 2017, so the seasonal explanation doesn’t fit either.

The variations could be explained by a neighboring moon, Dione. Every time Dione and Enceladus line up, their gravitational stress on each other could force Enceladus’ vents open a bit more, causing the plumes to grow brighter.

Unsolved enigmas

So far, analyzing data from Cassini hasn’t answered all of scientists’ questions. Is Enceladus the only moon with plumes? Dione showed signs of activity, too, but Cassini wasn’t able to confirm it. How thick is Enceladus’ ice sheet? Why are Titan’s smaller lakes full of clear, pure methane, when scientists expected the lakes to be clogged with hydrocarbon silt?

Even though the spacecraft is gone, it left decades’ worth of data to sift through in search of answers. “Cassini is going to keep on giving as long as we keep looking,” Hayes said.

Editors’ note: This story was updated on March 21, 2018, to include the affiliations of Jeff Cuzzi and Francis Nimmo.

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