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Saturn creates waves in its own rings

Just as earthquakes cause our planet to wobble, oscillations deep within Saturn cause the gas giant to “sway” in small ways. These movements, in turn, cause waves to appear in Saturn's rings.

In a new study, two astronomers from Caltech analyzed the waves in these rings and revealed new information about Saturn's core based on their analysis. For their study, the authors used archived data collected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, a probe that orbited the gas giant for 13 years before being deliberately sent to dive into the planet's atmosphere, where it disintegrated in 2017.

These findings indicate that the planet's core may not be a dense ball of rock, as several early hypotheses suggested, but rather a diffuse “soup” of ice, rock, and metallic fluids — what scientists used to call a “loose” core. This analysis also shows that the size of the core reaches 60 percent of the planet's diameter, a significant increase over previous estimates.

“We used Saturn's rings as a giant seismograph to measure oscillations within the planet with it,” said Jim Fuller, one of the paper's authors, an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, USA. — This is the first time we have been able to conduct a seismic study of the gas giant's structure, and the results were very unexpected.

The lead author of the work is Christopher Malkovich, a planetary scientist in Fuller's group.

According to these findings, for the oscillation of Saturn's gravitational field at the frequency required to create waves of the observed length in its ring system, the planet's interior must remain stable, and this is only possible if the proportion of ice and rock is gradually increasing as you move toward the center of the planet, Fuller explained. This position captures the essence of the “loose” core hypothesis.

The results obtained by the group also show that the mass of Saturn's core is about 55 masses of the Earth, with 17 masses of ice and rock, while the rest of the mass is hydrogen-helium fluid.

The “loose core” hypothesis contradicts some modern models of the formation of gas planets, according to which the formation of the planet begins with a rocky core, which then attracts a gas shell.

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