JAN 20, 2019 04:37 PM PST

Astronomers Use Saturn's Rings to Precisely Calculate the Planet's Rate of Rotation

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft executed a suicidal death plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017, but years’ worth of scientific data amassed by the spacecraft’s onboard instruments throughout its venerable mission continues to fuel Saturn-centric discoveries to this very day.

One of the latest success stories comes by way of a team of researchers from the University of California - Santa Cruz. After painstakingly scrutinizing planetary ring data that had been collected by the Cassini spacecraft just before the mission ended, the team claims to have calculated the most accurate rate of rotation for Saturn to date.

A close-up of Saturn's rings, captured with the Cassini spacecraft before its plunge in 2017.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI/Emily Lakdawalla

Citing their findings, published just last week in the Astrophysical Journal, a full day on Saturn lasts about 10 hours, 33 minutes, and 38 seconds. The researchers calculated this figure after discerning eccentric wave patterns in Saturn’s planetary rings that were allegedly generated by internal oscillations from the planet itself.

To sum things up a bit, Saturn’s planetary rings are extraordinarily sensitive to vibrations generated by processes transpiring beneath the planet’s surface. Much like a domino effect, these internal mechanisms influence Saturn’s gravitational field.

As the researchers explain, Saturn’s rings behave much like a giant, planet-orbiting seismograph that records oscillations as the planet rotates. Any spacecraft equipped with the correct equipment can analyze these imperfections during routine observations, and that’s precisely what Cassini did before NASA concluded the mission.

"Particles in the rings feel this oscillation in the gravitational field. At places where this oscillation resonates with ring orbits, energy builds up and gets carried away as a wave," elucidated UC Santa Cruz researcher Christopher Mankovich, the lead author of the study.

Related: Some of the ripples in Saturn's rings are created by the gravity of a passing moon

Saturn is a gassy planet, which made discerning its rotation particularly challenging for many years. Unlike rocky Earth-like planets, we can’t observe Saturn’s physical surface features to determine how long it takes the planet to rotate; instead, another method is required.

After the researchers realized how frequently Saturn’s oscillations were occurring in the planet’s C-ring, it gave them a tangible figure to use in computer models and discern Saturn’s rotation more accurately than ever before. What’s more is that the newly-estimated rate of rotation is said to be “several minutes” faster than initially thought.

"We now have the length of Saturn's day, when we thought we wouldn't be able to find it," added Linda Spilker, the project scientist of the Cassini mission. "They used the rings to peer into Saturn's interior, and out popped this long-sought, fundamental quality of the planet. And it's a really solid result. The rings held the answer."

Related: Saturn's rings won't be around forever, NASA says

Using Saturn’s rings to determine the planet’s rate of rotation isn’t a new concept by any stretch, but Cassini was the first spacecraft to provide detailed images of Saturn’s rings, making it conceivable to do so.

Being that this is the most accurate representation of Saturn’s rate of rotation to date, it should be interesting to see how long it will stand before some other astronomer claims an even more accurate result. Only time will tell, however.

Source: University of California – Santa Cruz, The Astrophysical Journal

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
You May Also Like
NOV 14, 2019
Space & Astronomy
NOV 14, 2019
SpaceX Lost Contact With 3 of its Starlink Internet Satellites
At the end of May, SpaceX launched a payload comprising of 60 Starlink internet satellites into space to develop the backbone for what the company envision...
NOV 14, 2019
Space & Astronomy
NOV 14, 2019
The 'Fulton Gap' Could Explain an Ongoing Question Regarding Planet Formation
When looking at the bulk of distant exoplanets discovered by astronomers over the years, one thing seems obvious: most of those are either smaller to or eq...
NOV 14, 2019
Space & Astronomy
NOV 14, 2019
How NASA's Dragonfly Mission Will Teach Us More About Titan
If you haven’t already heard, NASA is planning to launch a new mission dubbed Project Dragonfly, which will study Saturn’s moon Titan to learn...
NOV 14, 2019
Chemistry & Physics
NOV 14, 2019
2019 Nobel Prize in Physics: Exoplanets and the Evolution of Our Universe
This Tuesday, October 8th, the Nobel Prize committee announced the winners of this year's Physics Nobel. Canadian cosmologist James Peebles, alongside...
NOV 14, 2019
Space & Astronomy
NOV 14, 2019
NASA and SpaceX Reevaluate Commercial Crew Timeline
It appeared that there was recently some tension between NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk regarding the American space agency&rs...
NOV 14, 2019
Space & Astronomy
NOV 14, 2019
Mercury to be Visible as it Transits the Sun on Monday
Earthlings are in for some celestial eye candy on Monday, November 11th. Mercury, the smallest of the solar system’s eight planets, is expected to be...
Loading Comments...