Saturn’s rings mess with the gas giant’s atmosphere

Shadows and ‘ring rain’ affect electron levels in the planet’s ionosphere, final Cassini data suggest

Saturn’s rings

BLOCKING THE SUN  Saturn’s rings cast a shadow on the gas giant’s charged upper atmosphere, blocking ionizing rays as well as visible light.    

JPL-Caltech/NASA, Space Science Institute

NEW ORLEANS — Saturn’s mighty rings cast a long shadow on the gas giant — and not just in visible light.

Final observations from the Cassini spacecraft show that the rings block the sunlight that charges particles in Saturn’s atmosphere. The rings may even be raining charged water particles onto the planet, researchers report online December 11 in Science and at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

In the months before plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere in September (SN Online: 9/15/17), the Cassini spacecraft made a series of dives between the gas giant and its iconic rings (SN Online: 4/21/17). Some of those orbits took the spacecraft directly into Saturn’s ionosphere, a layer of charged particles in the upper atmosphere. The charged particles are mostly the result of ultraviolet radiation from the sun separating electrons from atoms.

Jan-Erik Wahlund of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Uppsala and Ann Persoon of the University of Iowa in Iowa City and their colleagues examined data from 11 of Cassini’s dives through the rings. The researchers found a lower density of charged particles in the regions associated with the ring shadows than elsewhere in the ionosphere. That finding suggests the rings block ultraviolet light, the team concludes.

Blocked sunlight can’t explain everything surprising about the ionosphere, though. The ionosphere was more variable than the researchers expected, with its electron density sometimes changing by more than an order of magnitude from one Cassini orbit to the next.

Charged water particles chipped off of the rings could periodically splash into the ionosphere and sop up the free electrons, the researchers suggest. This idea, known as “ring rain,” was proposed in the 1980s (SN: 8/9/86, p. 84) but has still never been observed directly.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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