A fresh scientific study based on data from the final orbits last year of NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows that the rings of Saturn are more chemically complicated than was previously thought.
The paper shows the innermost 'D' ring of the gas giant is hurling dust grains coated in a chemical cocktail into the planet's upper atmosphere at an extraordinary rate as it spins. Over long timescales, the researchers say this falling material may change the carbon and oxygen content of the atmosphere.
"This is a new element of how our solar system works," said Thomas Cravens, a professor at the University of Kansas and member of Cassini's Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) team.
The quality and quantity of the materials the rings are putting into the atmosphere surprised me
"Two things surprised me. One is the chemical complexity of what was coming off the rings. We thought it would be almost entirely water, based on what we saw in the past. The second thing is the sheer quantity of it - a lot more than we originally expected.
"The quality and quantity of the materials the rings are putting into the atmosphere surprised me."
During Cassini's "Grand Finale" plunge into Saturn's innermost ring and upper atmosphere in 2017, the mass spectrometer aboard the probe sampled chemicals at altitudes between Saturn's rings and atmosphere.
More than simply water, the INMS found the rings to be composed of water, methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, molecular nitrogen, and carbon dioxide.
"What the paper is describing is the environment in the gap between the inner ring and upper atmosphere, and some of the things found were expected, such as water," added Cravens.
"What was a surprise was the mass spectrometer saw methane - no one expected that. Also, it saw some carbon dioxide, which was unexpected. The rings were thought to be entirely water. But the innermost rings are fairly contaminated, as it turns out, with organic material caught up in ice."
The INMS found the rings to be composed of water, methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, molecular nitrogen, and carbon dioxide
A further new finding from Cassini's mass spectrometer has shown large amounts of the chemical cocktail from Saturn's D ring is flung into the planet's upper atmosphere by the ring spinning faster than the planet's atmosphere itself.
"We saw it was happening even though it's not fully understood," the University of Kansas researcher said.
"What we saw is this material, including some benzine, was altering the uppermost atmosphere of Saturn in the equatorial region. There were both grains and dust that were contaminated."
Cravens said the findings could cast new light on mechanisms underpinning our solar system as well as other solar systems and exoplanets, as well as prompt a host of new scientific questions.
"This could help us understand, how does a planet get rings? Some do, some don't," he said.
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