NASA spacecraft close to revealing origin of Saturn's rings
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NASA spacecraft close to revealing origin of Saturn's rings

An American research team has been able to map the nature of Saturn's rings with the help of data provided the NASA spacecraft Cassini.

world Updated: May 23, 2007 12:08 IST

A research team at the University of Central Florida has reportedly been able to map clumps in Saturn's rings with the help of a CAT scan, that may eventually explain the origin of the planet's three rings.

According to Josh Colwell, an Assistant Professor of Physics at the university, and a member of the Cassini ultraviolet imaging spectrograph team, Saturn's largest and most densely packed ring is composed of dense clumps of particles separated by nearly empty gaps.

Clumps in Saturn's B ring are neatly organized and constantly colliding, said Colwell, who filmed the new findings from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

Previously, it was assumed that the ring particles were distributed uniformly, and this led scientists to underestimate the total mass of Saturn's rings. Now, with the help of the CAT scan, the researchers feel that the mass might actually be two or more times than previous estimates.

"These results will help us understand the overall question of the age and hence the origin of Saturn's rings," said Colwell.

Principal investigator Larry Esposito at the University of Colorado is also fascinated with the findings.

"The rings are different from the picture we had in our minds. We originally thought we would see a uniform cloud of particles. Instead we find that the particles are clumped together with empty spaces in between. If you were flying under Saturn's rings in an airplane, you would see these flashes of sunlight come through the gaps, followed by dark and so forth. This is different from flying under a uniform cloud of particles," Esposito is quoted, as saying.

The observations were made using the spectrograph aboard the Cassini spacecraft, which left earth in 1997 on a mission to collect detailed data about Saturn, its rings and moons.

Cassini - the largest interplanetary spacecraft launched from earth - entered Saturn's orbit in July 2004, and scientists have been using sophisticated equipment on board to view and analyze images.

The results will be published in the journal Icarus this month.

First Published: May 23, 2007 12:02 IST