“It has been amazing to see the rings come to life before our very eyes, changing even as we watch, being colorful and taking on a tangible, 3-D nature,” Cuzzi said. “The rings were still a nearly unstructured object in even the best telescopes when I was a grad student, but Cassini has brought us an intimate familiarity with them.”
Cuzzi said Cassini scientists were surprised to find such fine-scale structure nearly everywhere in the rings, forcing them to be very careful about generalizing their findings across the entire ring disk. The discovery that the rings are clumpy has also called into question some of the previous estimates for the mass of the rings because there might be clusters of material hidden inside of the clumps that have not yet been measured.
In the review paper on Saturn’s atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetosphere, lead author Tamas Gombosi, Cassini’s interdisciplinary scientist for magnetosphere and plasma science who is based at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, describes how Cassini helped scientists understand a south polar vortex that has a diameter 20 to 40 times that of a terrestrial hurricane, and the bizarrely stable hexagon-shaped jet stream at the planet’s north pole. Cassini scientists have also calculated a variation in Saturn’s wind speeds at different altitudes and latitudes that is 10 times greater than the wind speed variation on Earth.
According to Gombosi’s paper, Cassini has also shown us that the small moon Enceladus, not the sun or Saturn’s largest moon Titan, is the biggest contributor of charged particles to Saturn’s magnetic environment. The charged particles from Enceladus, a moon that features a plume of water vapor and other gases spraying from its south polar region, also contribute to the auroras around the poles of the planet.
Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Rachel Prucey 650-604-0643
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.