Data From Cassini Helps Scientists Understand Saturn’s Atmosphere


A spaceship that has been studying Saturn since 2004 is still providing information collected about the planet, despite its death in 2017.

The spacecraft Cassini is known for helping scientists explain why the upper atmosphere of Saturn is high in temperature, which was an astronomical mystery for many years, considering Saturn’s distance from the Sun. By processing old data sent by Cassini, scientists are starting to figure it out.

This is a European Space Agency project made in collaboration with NASA. It is led by Zarah Brown, a Ph.D. student at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. Findings could indicate that the charged particles from the solar wind interact with their homologs that come from the moons of Saturn, triggering electric currents that, in turn, generate auroras that heat Saturn’s atmosphere.

Understanding Saturn’s Atmosphere Thanks To Cassini

These results improve our understanding not only of Saturn but of giant gas planets in general. Uranus, Neptune, and Jupiter also have currently unexplainably hot upper atmospheres. This phenomenon has also been noticed in a number of giant gas planets not situated in our solar system.

According to a declaration made by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these findings are important for understanding the inner workings of the atmosphere of planets. These results also help in cementing Cassini’s role in astronomical discoveries, despite its inactivity since 2017.

Scientists had used information from Cassini in the past to construct a map of the Saturn upper atmosphere’s density and temperature, which was unknown to researchers before Cassini arrived in 2004. An important role is played by the solar wind, which distributes energy from the location of the auroras (at the two poles) to the direction of the equator. The flux of energy heats the equator to temperatures that are twice bigger than the atmosphere could reach from the heat of the Sun.

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