Cassini Spacecraft Continues Making
New Saturn Discoveries

By Carolina Martinez JPL, and Dolores Beasley NASA

(JPL/NASA) NASA’s Cassini spacecraft continues making new and exciting discoveries. New findings include wandering and rubble-pile moons; new and clumpy Saturn rings; splintering storms and a dynamic magnetosphere.

"For the last seven months it has been a nonstop, science-packed mission. It has been a whirlwind, and already we have many new results," said Dr. Dennis Matson, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Weak, linear density waves caused in Saturn’s rings by the small moons Atlas and Pan have yielded more reliable calculations of their masses. The masses imply the moons are very porous, perhaps constructed like rubble piles. They are similar to the moons that shepherd Saturn’s F ring, Prometheus and Pandora.

Another discovery was a tiny moon, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) across, recently named Polydeuces. Polydeuces is a companion, or "Trojan" moon of Dione. Trojan moons are found near gravitationally stable points ahead or behind a larger moon. Saturn is the only planet known to have moons with companion Trojan moons.

The new findings, published in this week’s edition of the journal Science, include refinements in the orbits of several of Saturn’s small satellites. One intriguing result is the eccentric and slightly inclined orbit of Pan in Saturn’s A ring. The orbit’s shape is significant, as it indicates the type of interaction the moon has with the ring material surrounding it. If Pan’s orbit remains eccentric due to this interaction, then planets growing in a disc of material surrounding a star may also have eccentric orbits. This may help explain the eccentric paths of planets orbiting other stars.

Several faint Saturn rings have been discovered in Cassini images. Some lie in various gaps in the rings and may indicate the presence of tiny embedded moons acting as shepherds. Several of the rings are kinked, likely evidence of nearby moons.

Scientists also found Saturn’s winds change with altitude, and small storms emerge out of large ones. For the first time, Cassini images captured possible evidence of processes that may maintain the winds on Saturn. The observations offer a glimpse into the process which transfers energy by convection from Saturn’s interior to help sustain strong winds.

Other results improve the understanding of Saturn’s complex magnetic environment. "Saturn’s magnetosphere is truly unique. It’s dynamically similar to Jupiter’s, but in places it chemically resembles water-based plasmas surrounding comets," said Dr. David Young. Young is Cassini principal investigator for the plasma spectrometer instrument from the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.

Another surprising find was made by the ion and neutral mass spectrometer instrument, which measured molecular oxygen ions above Saturn’s ring plane. "This is at first surprising since the rings are made of water ice," said Dr. Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the spectrometer from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "This may have important consequences for the identification of spectral features to use in the search for life on extrasolar terrestrial planet systems."

The abundance of molecular oxygen on Earth is uniquely tied to biology. But these new measurements at Saturn suggest there are lifeless processes associated with cold icy surfaces that may produce an independent pathway for the formation of molecular oxygen in atmospheres.

Saturn’s ‘Dragon Storm’

Photo by NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute

(NASA/JPL) A large, bright and complex convective storm that appeared in Saturn’s southern hemisphere in mid-September 2004 was the key in solving a long-standing mystery about the ringed planet.

Saturn’s atmosphere and its rings are shown here in a false color composite made from Cassini images taken in near infrared light through filters that sense different amounts of methane gas. Portions of the atmosphere with a large abundance of methane above the clouds are red, indicating clouds that are deep in the atmosphere. Grey indicates high clouds, and brown indicates clouds at intermediate altitudes. The rings are bright blue because there is no methane gas between the ring particles and the camera.

The complex feature with arms and secondary extensions just above and to the right of center is called the Dragon Storm. It lies in a region of the southern hemisphere referred to as "storm alley" by imaging scientists because of the high level of storm activity observed there by Cassini in the last year.

The Dragon Storm was a powerful source of radio emissions during July and September of 2004. The radio waves from the storm resemble the short bursts of static generated by lightning on Earth. Cassini detected the bursts only when the storm was rising over the horizon on the night side of the planet as seen from the spacecraft; the bursts stopped when the storm moved into sunlight. This on/off pattern repeated for many Saturn rotations over a period of several weeks, and it was the clock-like repeatability that indicated the storm and the radio bursts are related. Scientists have concluded that the Dragon Storm is a giant thunderstorm whose precipitation generates electricity as it does on Earth. The storm may be deriving its energy from Saturn’s deep atmosphere.

One mystery is why the radio bursts start while the Dragon Storm is below the horizon on the night side and end when the storm is on the day side, still in full view of the Cassini spacecraft. A possible explanation is that the lightning source lies to the east of the visible cloud, perhaps because it is deeper where the currents are eastward relative to those at cloud top levels. If this were the case, the lightning source would come up over the night side horizon and would sink down below the day side horizon before the visible cloud. This would explain the timing of the visible storm relative to the radio bursts.

The Dragon Storm is of great interest for another reason. In examining images taken of Saturn’s atmosphere over many months, imaging scientists found that the Dragon Storm arose in the same part of Saturn’s atmosphere that had earlier produced large bright convective storms. In other words, the Dragon Storm appears to be a long-lived storm deep in the atmosphere that periodically flares up to produce dramatic bright white plumes which subside over time. One earlier sighting, in July 2004, was also associated with strong radio bursts. And another, observed in March 2004 and captured in a movie created from images of the atmosphere (http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA06082 and http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA06083) spawned three little dark oval storms that broke off from the arms of the main storm. Two of these subsequently merged with each other; the current to the north carried the third one off to the west, and Cassini lost track of it. Small dark storms like these generally get stretched out until they merge with the opposing currents to the north and south.

These little storms are the food that sustains the larger atmospheric features, including the larger ovals and the eastward and westward currents. If the little storms come from the giant thunderstorms, then together they form a food chain that harvests the energy of the deep atmosphere and helps maintain the powerful currents.

Cassini has many more chances to observe future flare-ups of the Dragon Storm, and others like it over the course of the mission. It is likely that scientists will come to solve the mystery of the radio bursts and observe storm creation and merging in the next 2 or 3 years.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.