Cassini Spacecraft Finds Surprisingly Vast Void Between Saturn’s Rings

Posted: May 8 2017, 3:43pm CDT | by , Updated: May 8 2017, 10:48pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Cassini Spacecraft Finds Surprisingly Vast Void Between Saturn’s Rings
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The region between the rings and Saturn is "The big empty", says NASA researchers.

Scientists have long thought that the peculiar narrow gap between Saturn and its rings contains a lot of dust and debris. They were surprised to find that the region appears to be relatively dust free. In fact, it's almost completely empty.

“The region between the rings and Saturn is 'the big empty,' apparently," said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize from NASA JPL. "Cassini will stay the course, while the scientists work on the mystery of why the dust level is much lower than expected.”

The assessment is based on the data collected during the Cassini’s first dive through the region. On April 26, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made its first dive into the gap between Saturn and its innermost rings and dropped from 72,400 kilometers to 6,700 kilometers above the clouds.

Researchers estimate that the gap is just 1200 miles wide. No other spacecraft has ever entered the gap or even reached this close. As Cassini sailed through the gap at the speed of around 77,000 mph, researchers were amazed by the lack of dust in previously unexplored region.

Since no probe had ever gone through the region before, Cassini team covered the spacecraft with dish-shaped high-gain antenna as a protective shield. The antenna which measures 13 feet across supposed to protect spacecraft’s delicate instruments from the oncoming ring particles. But Cassini only encountered a few dust particles on its way through the gap. Moreover, the particles that hit the sensors of Cassini's Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument were too small to pose any danger for the spacecraft. None of them was larger than those in the smoke.

The team was expecting to hear a lot of pops and cracks on crossing the ring plane inside the gap but the sound coming from the sensor was not as spookier as they originally thought. It was no more than a whistle or squeak. These kinds of sounds are normally heard when a spacecraft passes through an empty space.

“It was a bit disorienting – we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear,” said William Kurth, RPWS team leader from University of Iowa. “I have listened to the data from the first dive several times and I can probably count on my hands the number of dust particle impacts I hear.”

Less dusty environment also means that the spacecraft would not need a protective shield for most of the future dives through the ring plane. Cassini has already completed its second dive on May 2 while it is about to plunge into the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings for the third time in May 9. The remaining 19 dives will take place though the next few months, ending with a final plunge into Saturn on Sept. 15. The final dive will also mark the end of the 20-year long mission.

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