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Saturn's rings reveal its mighty muddy "heart" - space and astronomy

Saturn’s rings reveal its mighty muddy “heart” – space and astronomy

Saturn has a muddy “core” larger than expected: this can be seen from the ripples of the rings that surround the planet that “record” its internal vibrations like seismographs. Caltech researchers discovered this thanks to data from the Cassini mission, which concluded in 2017 and the result of a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The results of the study, which could undermine current models of gas giant planet formation, are published in Nature Astronomy.

“We used Saturn’s rings as a giant seismometer to measure the planet’s internal oscillations,” explains astrophysicist Jim Fuller. “This is the first time we have been able to seismically investigate the structure of a gas giant planet and the results are very surprising.”

The data suggests that the planet’s “core” isn’t a solid iron-nickel core as some models had assumed in the past: it would actually be a more muddy texture, similar to a soup made of hydrogen and helium in the liquid state, ice and rock. Analyzes also indicate that the core will be larger than expected, equal to 60% of the diameter of the planet, and have a mass 55 times that of Earth.

These data can call into question current models about the birth of gas giant planets, according to which the rocky core will first form and then draw in the different layers of gas: if the core is really muddy as inferred from Cassini data, then these planets should have incorporated gases much earlier in the configuration process.

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