Apr 30, 2019 - Science

Skimming Saturn's rings

Saturn as seen by Cassini. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Saturn as seen by Cassini. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

A new mission concept building on the legacy of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft would study Saturn’s rings, giving us an unprecedented view of the distant world’s most stunning feature.

Why it matters: While Cassini transformed our understanding of Saturn over the course of its 13-year mission, the spacecraft also left the science community with many questions to answer.

  • The new mission, called the Saturn Ring Skimmer, would be designed to help scientists reveal why the planet's most defining feature looks the way it does.
  • “There are a lot of science questions about what individual ring particles look like and what they do,” the SETI Institute’s Matthew Tiscareno, one of the scientists developing the plan, tells Axios. “We’ve never seen individual ring particles, but with the ring skimmer, we definitely would.”

Details: Some of Cassini’s final orbits in 2017 brought the craft between Saturn and its rings, but the skimmer would be able to show the inner workings of the rings in extreme detail by getting a better view of them compared to Cassini.

  • “We’re talking about 50–100 times as close to the rings as Cassini got at least when it was taking [its best] images,” Tiscareno said.
  • Tiscareno expects the mission would cost no more than $1 billion, putting it in the same range as NASA’s Pluto-exploring New Horizons mission.
  • It’s even possible that the spacecraft will be able to sample dust above the rings themselves to learn more about the composition of the rings using chemical analysis.
  • The skimmer could also come equipped with a way to study Saturn’s plasma environment. Scientists are also interested in performing some gravity science to understand exactly what’s going on under the planet’s thick cloud cover.

But, but, but: This spacecraft is still far from a sure thing. The scientists behind the skimmer concept are planning to submit the idea to NASA for further consideration. Team members are also affiliated with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Idaho, the Southwest Research Institute, Harvard University and other institutions.

Go deeper