Previously, researchers thought Saturn’s core was rocky. But data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which orbited the ring planet for 13 years before intentionally plunging into its atmosphere in 2017, suggests a larger-than-expected core.
Rather than solid rock, Saturn’s core is probably what scientists call “fuzzy,” or a mixture of ice, rock, and metallic fluids.
The oscillations that occur inside Saturn cause the planet to move, creating ripples in the planet’s magnificent ring system.
The frequency of gravitational ripples measured in the rings suggests that Saturn’s deep interior is stable. As the planet formed, its interior formed stable layers as heavy materials like rock and ice moved toward the center of the planet and lighter materials rose above them.
“This is the first time that we have been able to seismically probe the structure of a giant gas planet, and the results have been quite surprising,” said Jim Fuller, co-author of the study and assistant professor of theoretical astrophysics to Caltech, in a statement.
Their findings also show that Saturn’s core is 55 times more massive than our planet as a whole. About 17 land masses in the core are made up of ice and rock – the rest is a fluid made from hydrogen and helium. The fuzzy core spans 60% of the diameter of the planet.
The results of this research also match evidence gathered on Jupiter’s core by the ongoing Juno mission, which suggests that the largest gas giant in our solar system has a similar core.
“Fuzzy cores are like mud,” Mankovich said. “The planet’s hydrogen and helium gas gradually mix with more and more ice and rock as you move toward the center of the planet. It’s kind of like parts of the Earth’s oceans where salinity increases as you reach deeper and deeper levels, creating a stable environment. configuration. “
These findings challenge researchers’ current models for the formation of gas giants. These models suggest that rock cores are the first to form, which then attract envelopes of gas around them. But the basic fuzzy idea can mean that gas is an early part of the forming process.
Spiral patterns in Saturn’s rings created by the planet’s gravitational field were first observed in 2013 by Matt Hedman, a scientist participating in the Cassini mission and associate professor in the physics department at the University of the ‘Idaho.
“Christopher and Jim were able to show that a particular feature of the ring provided strong evidence that Saturn’s core is extremely diffuse,” Hedman said in a statement. He did not participate in this study.
“I’m excited to think of what all of the other features of the rings generated by Saturn could tell us about this planet,” Hedman said.