The wonderful Cassini mission to Saturn – which ended in 2017 – just keeps on giving. This month (June 13, 2019), scientists released new, incredibly detailed images of Saturn’s rings, captured as Cassini was just above the planet’s cloudtops at the end of its mission, prior to its dramatic plunge into the clouds and depths of Saturn. Cassini scientists said these images give them an even more intimate view of the rings than before. They said each examination reveals new complexities. Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said:
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. Getting that extra resolution answered many questions, but so many tantalizing ones remain.
Findings include fine details of features sculpted by masses embedded within the rings. Textures and patterns, from clumpy to straw-like, pop out of the images, raising questions about the interactions that shaped them. New maps reveal how colors, chemistry and temperature change across the rings.
According to the research, tiny moons embedded in Saturn’s rings (named A through G, in order of their discovery) interact with the particles around them. Cassini scientist Matt Tiscareno of the SETI Institute, is the study lead author. Tiscareno said in a statement:
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.
The close-up ring images brought into focus three distinct textures – clumpy, smooth and streaky – and made it clear that these textures occur in belts with sharp boundaries. But why? In many places the belts aren’t connected to any ring characteristics that scientists have yet identified. Tiscareno said:
This tells us the way the rings look is not just a function of how much material there is. 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.
The data analyzed were gathered during the Cassini spacecraft’s Ring Grazing Orbits (December 2016 to April 2017) and the Grand Finale (April to September 2017). As the spacecraft was running out of fuel, the mission team deliberately plunged it into the planet’s atmosphere in September 2017.
Bottom line: Detailed images of Saturn’s rings from the Cassini spacecraft.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.