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International Edition Winners 2012: Singapore, Target 3

International Edition Winners 2012: Singapore, Target 3


Prinita Mukherjee
Saturn
Target 3, Saturn
Prinita Mukherjee

 



"I believe Cassini cameras should capture images of Saturn and its rings as although there
are many long-standing beliefs about Saturn, they remain unproven. Close-up images of
Saturn can verify some of these current hypotheses while dismissing others to be myths.
Saturn, one of the four gas giants, has a surface temperature of 135 Kelvin. It has a small,
rocky core, surrounded by a liquid and a thick atmosphere. The distinction between its
surface and atmosphere is however nebulous.

Saturn has many distinctive features -- for instance, its rings that spread over 175,000 miles
but are only a few hundred feet thick, are made from rock and ice of varying sizes. Data
suggests the rings were present throughout Saturn's history. Saturn also has a unique heat
generating system that provides twice as much heat as it receives from the sun. It is
postulated that "raining" of helium causes solid helium to dissolve, giving off heat.
Images taken from Cassini can provide interesting information about Saturn's turbulent
weather. As one year in Saturn spans 29.7 Earth years, images for one entire weather cycle
have not yet been captured. When Cassini started orbiting Saturn in 2004, it was the start
of the northern winter solstice and darkness had settled. Only after years did spring arrive
and the Cassini cameras were able to capture intriguing images of Saturn's weather,
especially of the stormy summer season. The cameras can continue taking pictures right
till the summer solstice occurring in May 2017, making it the first time an entire weather
cycle of the Northern hemisphere of Saturn is captured.

Previous images have revealed monstrous vortexes that powers giant thunderstorms above
both poles. Further observations can reveal how these vortices evolve as the seasons
change. The high-resolution images showed a hexagon four times the size of Earth, which
is the path of a jet stream flowing around the North Pole, revealing never-before seen
concentric circles, curlicues, walls and streamers. More images of Saturn will explain the
causes and effects of the hexagon.

These images will also help scientists answer questions on Earth's weather cycle as Earth's
surface has large land masses and oceans, complicating the weather patterns while
Saturn's unmarred surface provides an apt model for studying circulation patterns and the
atmosphere.

Furthermore, the images will provide a new perspective about Saturn's rings, unravelling
details about new ringlets or nearby moons. Images taken during equinox, the phase when
sunlight hits the rings edge-on, have uncovered towering vertical structures in the rings,
which were previously believed to be flat. These structures were possibly formed due to
the gravitational effects of a small nearby moon.

Moreover, Spica- the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, is scheduled to be occulted
from Cassini by Saturn's rings. Occultations of Spica by Saturn's rings will provide an
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to record images for measuring the amount of light from
Spica blocked by Saturn's rings, providing useful information about the ring structure,
thickness, shapes and sizes of ring particles and their interactions."