KU professor co-writes paper showing the chemical complexity of Saturn’s rings
photo by: NASA
A new study based on data from the final orbits last year of NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft shows the rings of Saturn are far more chemically complicated than previously thought.
University of Kansas professor Thomas Cravens co-wrote the study, which shows the innermost D ring of the gas giant is hurling dust grains coated in its chemical cocktail into the planet’s upper atmosphere at an extraordinary rate as it spins, according to a news release from KU.
Over long periods, the researchers say this infalling material may change the carbon and oxygen content of the atmosphere.
“This is a new element of how our solar system works,” Cravens, a physics and astronomy professor, said in the release.
“Two things surprised me. One is the chemical complexity of what was coming off the rings — we thought it would be almost entirely water based on what we saw in the past. The second thing is the sheer quantity of it — a lot more than we originally expected. The quality and quantity of the materials the rings are putting into the atmosphere surprised me.”
Cravens is a member of Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team. During Cassini’s “grand finale” plunge into Saturn’s innermost ring and upper atmosphere in 2017, the mass spectrometer aboard the probe sampled chemicals at altitudes between Saturn’s rings and atmosphere. A further new finding from Cassini’s mass spectrometer showed large amounts of the chemical brew from Saturn’s D ring is flung into the planet’s upper atmosphere by the ring spinning faster than the planet’s atmosphere itself, according to the release.