Saturn Surprises As Cassini Continues its Grand Finale

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Aug 24, 2017, 8:01:03 PM8/24/17

Saturn Surprises As Cassini Continues its Grand Finale
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
July 24, 2017

As NASA's Cassini spacecraft makes its unprecedented series of weekly
dives between Saturn and its rings, scientists are finding -- so far --
that the planet's magnetic field has no discernible tilt. This surprising
observation, which means the true length of Saturn's day is still unknown,
is just one of several early insights from the final phase of Cassini's
mission, known as the Grand Finale.

Other recent science highlights include promising hints about the structure
and composition of the icy rings, along with high-resolution images of
the rings and Saturn's atmosphere.

Cassini is now in the 15th of 22 weekly orbits that pass through the narrow
gap between Saturn and its rings. The spacecraft began its finale on April
26 and will continue its dives until Sept. 15, when it will make a mission-ending
plunge into Saturn's atmosphere.

"Cassini is performing beautifully in the final leg of its long journey,"
said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Pasadena, California. "Its observations continue to surprise and delight
as we squeeze out every last bit of science that we can get."

Cassini scientists are thrilled as well -- and surprised in some cases
-- with the observations being made by the spacecraft in the finale. "The
data we are seeing from Cassini's Grand Finale are every bit as exciting
as we hoped, although we are still deep in the process of working out
what they are telling us about Saturn and its rings," said Cassini Project
Scientist Linda Spilker at JPL.

Early Magnetic Field Analysis

Based on data collected by Cassini's magnetometer instrument, Saturn's
magnetic field appears to be surprisingly well-aligned with the planet's
rotation axis. The tilt is much smaller than 0.06 degrees -- which is
the lower limit the spacecraft's magnetometer data placed on the value
prior to the start of the Grand Finale.

This observation is at odds with scientists' theoretical understanding
of how magnetic fields are generated. Planetary magnetic fields are understood
to require some degree of tilt to sustain currents flowing through the
liquid metal deep inside the planets (in Saturn's case, thought to be
liquid metallic hydrogen). With no tilt, the currents would eventually
subside and the field would disappear.

Any tilt to the magnetic field would make the daily wobble of the planet's
deep interior observable, thus revealing the true length of Saturn's day,
which has so far proven elusive.

"The tilt seems to be much smaller than we had previously estimated and
quite challenging to explain," said Michele Dougherty, Cassini magnetometer
investigation lead at Imperial College, London. "We have not been able
to resolve the length of day at Saturn so far, but we're still working
on it."

The lack of a tilt may eventually be rectified with further data. Dougherty
and her team believe some aspect of the planet's deep atmosphere might
be masking the true internal magnetic field. The team will continue to
collect and analyze data for the remainder of the mission, including during
the final plunge into Saturn.

The magnetometer data will also be evaluated in concert with Cassini's
measurements of Saturn's gravity field collected during the Grand Finale.
Early analysis of the gravity data collected so far shows discrepancies
compared with parts of the leading models of Saturn's interior, suggesting
something unexpected about the planet's structure is awaiting discovery.

Sampling Saturn

In addition to its investigation of the planet's interior, Cassini has
now obtained the first-ever samples of the planet's atmosphere and main
rings, which promise new insights about their composition and structure.
The spacecraft's cosmic dust analyzer (CDA) instrument has collected many
nanometer-size ring particles while flying through the planet-ring gap,
while its ion and neutral mass spectrometer (INMS) has sniffed the outermost
atmosphere, called the exosphere.

During Cassini's first dive through the gap on April 26, the spacecraft
was oriented so its large, saucer-shaped antenna would act as a shield
against oncoming ring particles that might cause damage. While at first
it appeared that there were essentially no particles in the gap, scientists
later determined the particles there are very small and could be detected
using the CDA instrument.

The cosmic dust analyzer was later allowed to peek out from behind the
antenna during Cassini's third of four passes through the innermost of
Saturn's main rings, the D ring, on June 29. During Cassini's first two
passes through the inner D ring, the particle environment there was found
to be benign. This prompted mission controllers to relax the shielding
requirement for one orbit, in hopes of capturing ring particles there
using CDA. As the spacecraft passed through the ring, the CDA instrument
successfully captured some of the tiniest particles there, which the team
expects will provide significant information about their composition.

During the spacecraft's final five orbits, as well as it final plunge,
the INMS instrument will obtain samples deeper down in the atmosphere.
Cassini will skim through the outer atmosphere during these passes, and
INMS is expected to send particularly important data on the composition
of Saturn's atmosphere during the final plunge.

Amazing Images

Not to be outdone, Cassini's imaging cameras have been hard at work, returning
some of the highest-resolution views of the rings and planet they have
ever obtained. For example, close-up views of Saturn's C ring -- which
features mysterious bright bands called plateaus -- reveal surprisingly
different textures in neighboring sections of the ring. The plateaus appear
to have a streaky texture, whereas adjacent regions appear clumpy or have
no obvious structure at all. Ring scientists believe the new level of
detail may shed light on why the plateaus are there, and what is different
about the particles in them.

On two of Cassini's close passes over Saturn, on April 26 and June 29,
the cameras captured ultra-close views of the cloudscape racing past,
showing the planet from closer than ever before. Imaging scientists have
combined images from these dives into two new image mosaics and a movie
sequence. (Specifically, the previously released April 26 movie was updated
to greatly enhance its contrast and sharpness.)

Launched in 1997, Cassini has orbited Saturn since arriving in 2004 for
an up-close study of the planet, its rings and moons, and its vast magnetosphere.
Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean
with indications of hydrothermal activity within the moon Enceladus, and
liquid methane seas on another moon, Titan.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European
Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for
NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed, developed
and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

More information about the Cassini mission:

News Media Contact
Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
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