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article imageEssential Science: Listening in on the sounds of Saturn

By Tim Sandle     May 8, 2017 in Science
Houston - NASA scientists have begun sharing information collected by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been exploring Saturn and its moons. One remarkable offering is the ‘sounds’ that emanate from the giant planet’s rings.
The new audio files come from data collected from the Cassini spacecraft when it dove in between Saturn and its mysterious rings. Cassini–Huygens is the name of an unmanned spacecraft sent to the planet Saturn. The spacecraft is divided into the Saturn orbiter (Cassini) and a lander (Huygens), both which are named after famous astronomers. Cassini was the first space probe to enter orbit around Saturn and it has been busy data gathering since 2004. Huygens landed on Saturn's moon Titan in 2005 and has since returned to Earth.
Artist s impression Cassini during the Saturn Orbit Insertion
Artist's impression Cassini during the Saturn Orbit Insertion
Cassini, due to its dwindling fuel supply, has entered the Grand Finale phase of its mission. In its later life the craft has engaged in a number of passes through the gap between Saturn and its inner ring. By September 2017, 22 dives will have been completed. There are risks each time the probe crosses the gap. Cassini travels through the gap at a relative speed of about some 77,000 miles per hour (124,000 kilometers per hour). This means even small particles striking the spacecraft could be deadly.
Saturn, a gas giant, is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in the Solar System. The planet has a prominent ring system that consists of nine continuous main rings and three discontinuous arcs and that is composed mostly of ice particles with a smaller amount of rocky debris and dust.
Cassini takes a picture of the Saturn in 2007.
This natural color mosaic was acquired by the Cassini spacecraft as it soared 39 degrees above the unilluminated side of Saturn's rings.
These dives have produced a series of interest images, plus a series of measurements. The measurements show, for instance, that the gaps between Saturn and its rings consists of far more empty space that astrophysicists had previously realized.
There’s another interesting observation about the rings of Saturn is the presence of sound, as detected by Cassini’s giant microphone. This has revealed an interesting insight into what the Saturnine system sounds like, that is the 1,200-mile-wide (2,000-kilometer-wide) region between Saturn and its rings.
Hear the sounds via this special video
Fortunately for Digital Journal readers, NASA has provided a video-audio recording of the rings:
Commenting on the recording, William Kurth, who works at University of Iowa, Iowa City, told NASA’s technology brief: “It was a bit disorienting -- we weren't hearing what we expected to hear”, adding “I've listened to our data from the first dive several times and I can probably count on my hands the number of dust particle impacts I hear.”
The ‘ring cycle’ has been recorded and the analyzed using Cassini’s Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument. This device detects sound in an unusual way. A different way of collecting sound is necessary because sound waves do not travel in a vacuum (or at least the near vacuum that exists within the inter-ring space). This process involves translating collected data into sound.
Artist s rendition of the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn.
Artist's rendition of the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn.
NASA, JPL-Caltex
The noise between the rings is described by Laboratory Roots as a type of screech, made up of a series of ‘pops’ and ‘cracks.’ The audio files are not just a curiosity for they reveal more about the conditions of the gap in space between Saturn and the rings.
There is more to learn about the rings of Saturn. Scientists are keen to find out how old the rings are and why, despite theories suggesting that the space between the rings will be full of dust and debris, they appear relatively clear? Meanwhile spare a thought for Cassini. The space probe is almost out of fuel. In September the probe will make a final dive into Saturn’s atmosphere and it will be destroyed as it burns up (what NASA are calling the ‘Grand Finale’). The reason Saturn has been targeted for the probe’s s destruction is because the planet cannot support life, unlike the moons Enceladus or Titan. These objects could possibly contain microbial life (or at least have what bioologists called ‘prebiotic’ conditions) and NASA is keen not to disrupt the ecosystems of these bodies.
Essential Science
Laboratory technican testing clinical samples (Tim Sandle s laboratory.)
Laboratory technican testing clinical samples (Tim Sandle's laboratory.)
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we looked at the emergence of a new bacterial pathogen that presents a risk as a sexually transmitted disease. The week before we delved into biofuels and considered how a new generation of biofuels was being developed from the harvesting of algae.
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