Unusual ripples in Saturn’s rings are revealing the mysterious inner workings of the great gas giant. Planetary scientists and modelers are slowly picking apart that mystery.
Billions of particles race around Saturn’s 170,000-mile-wide (273,600 kilometers) set of rings, which are mostly water ice with a smattering of rock. The rings are full of activity, including waves that ricochet outward in spiral patterns, most caused by the gravitational pull of Saturn’s 62 moons. Waves caused by the moons, which orbit outside the rings’ sphere, always travel outward.
But then there’s a set of waves heading inward. That means there’s something moving inside, too. [Video: Fly Through Space ‘In Saturn’s Rings’]
Most scientists’ models of Saturn and other gas giants assume the planet is pretty uniform — just a large gas envelope surrounding a small, dense core that’s perhaps the size of Earth. But by studying the rings’ waves, researchers are finding the picture much more complicated.
“The one thing that might produce this [series of waves] is that some sort of disturbance inside Saturn itself is spinning around with a period that’s less than 7 hours,” Phillip Nicholson, a planetary scientist at Cornell University in New York, told Space.com. Researchers first noticed hints of that disturbance in the 1990s, and Nicholson’s team used more precise measurements to fully document the ring waves’ structures, which reflect the oscillations of the planet within — sort of like recurring Saturn quakes.
Right now, measuring those oscillations offers scientists the best possible chance to grasp what’s going on far…