The latest findings made by NASA’s Cassini probe might change the way scientists see Solar System’s Saturn. Cassini completed two dives in the unexplored area between the Saturn’s rings, and scientists were shocked to see there is nothing there, not even space dust.

Scientists revealed that apparently there is no matter between the famous rings of Saturn. Rings are made up of ice and space debris that are always moving in a quick way. These findings are based on data Cassini collected during its first dive through the region on April 26.

Cassini, Saturn
Cassini has not even found dust between Saturn’s rings. Image credit: NASA.

“The region between the rings and Saturn is ‘the big empty,’ apparently,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Cassini will stay the course, while the scientists work on the mystery of why the dust level is much lower than expected.”

A 20-year joint mission ends with an astonishing discovery

The Cassini project was launched in 1997 as a joint mission between NASA, the Italian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency. It got to Saturn -the second largest planet in the Solar System- in 2004. It will complete 22 dives between the rings and the planet before making its final travel into the planet this September when the 20-year mission is set to end.

However, the new data collected by Cassini have puzzled scientists. They discovered that there is absolutely nothing in the area between the Saturn’s rings. Scientists had expected to find at least some small amounts of dust or another type of matter there between the gaps.

A false-color view of Saturn’s clouds. Image credit: NASA

Had the environment been dustier in the gaps, the spacecraft’s saucer-shaped primary antenna would have been needed as a shield in future dives. However, since that is not the case, there is no need for Plan B to continue the investigations.

Thanks to images from Cassini, scientists estimated that there would not be large particles in the 1,200-mile-wide (2,000-kilometer-wide) region between Saturn and its rings that could pose a threat to the spacecraft and the mission. However, since no spacecraft has ever been there before, engineers made an antenna that would protect the Cassini probe from oncoming ring particles.

The lack of matter is disorienting for scientists

When they converted the RPWS data in an audible format, researchers expected to hear the dust particles hitting the instrument’s antennas. However, those expected pops and crack sounds never came on the Cassini’s data evaluated on April 26.

“It was a bit disorienting — we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear,” said William Kurth, RPWS team lead at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. “I’ve listened to our data from the first dive several times and I can probably count on my hands the number of dust particle impacts I hear.”

According to the team of analysts, the particles with which Cassini made some few encounters as it crossed the gap are not larger than those particles in smoke, about 1 micron.

The next dive for Cassini was on May 2 at 12:38 p.m. During this opportunity Cassini rotated faster than scientists have ever allowed it. They did this to calibrate the magnetometer.

Life in Saturn could be confirmed thanks to Cassini

The Cassini spacecraft went into the Enceladus’s ice-covered ocean. Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon. It is about 303 miles wide. It is almost entirely frozen, and it is 800 million miles away from Earth. Thanks to the data, scientists noticed the presence of hydrogen gas there. They said that this gas could only come from the hydrothermal reactions between sweltering rocks and water in the ocean that is beneath the ice. Scientists say, due to the characteristics of this oceans, that some delicate species might live there in deep waters.

This could lead to think that Saturn is not as evolved as Earth since its Enceladus’ Ocean might hold now the similar single-celled organisms that began life on Earth. They haven’t confirmed life in Saturn; however, the conditions would allow this type of life.

A shot of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Image credit: NASA.

These type of organisms are still found in the depths of Earth’s oceans. They use hydrogen and CO2 to survive through a process called “methanogenesis.” At least on Earth, life can only be possible if there is water, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, nitrogen and phosphorus.

The only thing left to be found in Saturn is sulfur and phosphorus. Nonetheless, scientists have good vibes about this, since the rocky cores of Saturn’s moons seem to be similar to the meteorites where these two elements are found. The data collected in Enceladus is the first evidence of a food source from another place in the space.

“What is intriguing about the data at Enceladus, with the hydrogen detection, is that we are now able to determine how much energy would be available from the methanogenesis reaction at Enceladus,” said Chris Glein, Cassini INMS team associate at SwRI during the press conference. “We have made the first calorie count in an alien ocean.”

Source: Building a Better World News