The Cassini mission’s “Grand Finale” came almost two decades after the spacecraft’s launch and 13 years after it entered Saturn’s orbit to collect valuable scientific information on the ringed planet and its moons. But with more than a year having passed since Cassini crash-landed into Saturn after a series of orbits, scientists are still busy publishing their analysis of the data gathered during the Grand Finale, as more than 10 new papers were published this week, revealing previously unknown information about Saturn and its rings.
According to a report from Gizmodo, a total of 11 papers, including six published in the journal Science and five published in Geophysical Research Letters, went out on Thursday, combining to shed more light on Saturn’s rings and the gap that separates them from the gas giant’s atmosphere. Some of the more peculiar findings from these studies suggest that the poles of Saturn’s magnetic field are almost perfectly aligned with its rotational axis and that the planet’s rings pound its atmosphere with tiny dust grains, or organic “rain” made up of a number of compounds.
Based on the researchers’ findings, the dust grains emitted by Saturn’s rings are made up of water, silicates, ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane, and “more complex” organic molecules. While the molecules found in the dust contain some of the necessary ingredients for life, Gizmodo pointed out that this should not be interpreted as an actual sign of life on the planet. Astronomy.com wrote that the nanometer-sized dust grains pour down at rates of about 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms) per second, which could be a sign that Saturn’s rings are gradually eroding.
Hunter Waite, lead author on one of the studies and a scientist at the Southwestern Research Institute, commented that the rains were found to pour down at a rate that was “way faster than anyone thought.”
“It was a phenomenal surprise to discover the high mass of material flowing into Saturn’s atmosphere and how complex its chemistry is,” SwRI scientist Kelly Miller said, in an interview with Gizmodo.
“This dataset and the Cassini mission overall have provided an important window into the diversity of environments where organics are present in the solar system.”
In addition to the organic “rain,” the new research included updated measurements of Saturn’s magnetic field, which suggested that the gas giant’s magnetic field is in near-perfect alignment with its rotation. According to Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker, this sets Saturn apart from most other planets, where magnetic fields are aligned to their spin axis. Additionally, the papers showed how the gap between Saturn’s atmosphere and its rings is home to a belt of protons that emitted radiation intense enough to prevent Cassini’s instruments from working.
According to Astronomy.com, there’s a very good chance the 11 newly published studies won’t be the last of their kind to uncover “surprises” from Cassini’s Grand Finale. As there’s still a lot of information that has yet to be analyzed, the publication predicted that the coming months should see more information revealed about Saturn, its rings, and its moons.