New insights into Saturn’s famous ring system have come from data collected during a solar eclipse on the sixth planet from the Sun.
Published In the magazine Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical SocietyA new paper crunches archival data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft that orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017.
This reveals how much light the rings absorb. The rings are 98% ice and extend 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) from the planet, but are less than a mile thick.
Eclipses of Saturn
While Cassini was in the shadow of the rings — Saturn eclipsed the Sun, in its view — its instruments received much less sunlight. That’s how accurate scientists got to measuring the transparency of Saturn’s rings.
Although these are „fake” eclipses caused entirely by spacecraft motion, two of Saturn’s moons, Epimetheus and Pandora, are known to cause true solar eclipses from the giant planet’s perspective.
Science in Saturn’s Shadow
When light hits a surface — in this case, the metal made by Cassini and its instruments — it emits electrons. This is called the photoelectric effect. This is what happened to Cassini’s Langmuir probe, which was on the spacecraft to measure charged particles around Saturn.
„By focusing on the variations in the data, we realized that they were linked to how much sunlight each ring would allow to pass through,” he said. George SistourisA PhD student University of Lancaster. By knowing the characteristics of the Langmuir probe and how bright the Sun was in Saturn’s neighborhood, „we were able to calculate the optical depth of Saturn’s rings by calculating the change in photoelectric number for each ring,” Xystouris said. The results, which reveal how much light the rings absorb, are consistent with high-resolution images of the rings.
According to a study published earlier this year, Saturn’s rings are no more than 400 million years old and will disappear in about 100 million years. According to NASA, when they are pulled by Saturn’s gravity. However, in a very short period of time, they become very challenging to see. As Saturn orbits the Sun every 29 years, Earth’s visibility waxes and wanes during that time, and the rings appear to open and close.
Our field of vision is narrowing now, and by 2025 the rings will be tilted to the edge of the Earth, making them almost impossible to see. They will then tilt back toward Earth, becoming more visible and brighter until 2032.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
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