(TMU) — The makeup of Saturn, whose billowing storm-like atmosphere fascinates scientists, has always been a huge mystery. What comprises the interior of Saturn, for example, underneath the vast, smoggy 1800 km/hour winds? New analysis of data from the 2017 Cassini probe suggests the heart of Saturn may be far stranger than imagined.
Our knowledge of Saturn previously consisted of studying how different wavelengths of sunlight flow through its atmosphere. The gas giant is dramatically different than Earth, consisting of mostly hydrogen and helium with trace amounts of methane, sulfur, and ammonium hydrosulphide clouds. Much further down Saturn was believed to have a solid metallic core wrapped in layers of rock, liquid metallic hydrogen, and liquid hydrogen. The other layers have remained a mystery.
The Cassini spacecraft studied the solar system for almost two decades before scientists decided to guide it into a controlled crash (the intention being to protect Saturn’s potentially life-harboring moons from Earth-born microbial contaminants) into the atmosphere of Saturn, a death-plunge that was expected to produce a first-ever glimpse beneath the arcane atmosphere.
The glimpse was not photographic but telemetric, involving measurements of the planet’s gravitational field and jet streams. In a new study published in Physical Review Fluids, a team of researchers says the data sent back from Cassini may provide strong clues to the nature of Saturn’s interior.
“Deep into Saturn, where the pressure is high, the gas becomes a liquid that conducts electricity and is more strongly influenced by the planet’s magnetic field,” read a press release from researcher Navid Constantino. “An electrically conducting, flowing liquid will bend or distort a magnetic field. We showed that the distortion of the magnetic field makes the fluid more viscous, like honey.”
While it’s hard to imagine this honey-like field of magnetically-warped, electricity-conducting viscosity, scientists say it could answer the mystery as to why the violent jet streams of Saturn abruptly stop 8,500 kilometers (5,281 miles) inside the planet.
“The mysteries of what goes on inside Saturn and the other gas giants in our Solar System are now slowly starting to be unveiled,” Constantinou continued. “Our findings provide a promising way for interpreting the data from planetary missions and offer a better understanding of the planets in our Solar System and beyond.”
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