Illustration showing activity in Saturn's rings.

For the radio science instrument, the radio signals that Cassini transmits to Earth are the experiment, and the NASA Deep Space Network complexes in Australia, Spain and the U.S. are part of the instrument. More on the Deep Space Network

How It Works

Radio waves are altered as they travel through a gas, bounce off a surface or pass near a massive object. By sending radio signals through, near or even bouncing off of objects in the Saturn system, Cassini's Radio Science Subsystem can help scientists learn about the objects with which the radio waves interact.

How We Use It

The Radio Science Subsystem sends radio signals from Cassini to Earth using the spacecraft’s large radio dish, which is called the high-gain antenna. En route, the radio signal interacts with Saturn’s moons, rings or Saturn's atmosphere. When the signals reach Earth, scientists study how the signals were altered, which helps them learn about gravity fields, atmospheric structure, composition, ring structure and particle sizes, surface properties and more.


The researchers who study the Saturn system using Cassini’s instruments are accustomed to waiting.

The spacecraft’s high-gain antenna must be pointed toward Earth in order to send its data. But often the spacecraft must face a different direction because one or more of its instruments are observing a specific target. Sometimes a moon, or the planet, is between the spacecraft and Earth, so Cassini must store its data until it can be beamed to Earth later.

Researchers have no choice but to wait for hours, or sometimes days, before getting their hands on data that’s been sitting on the spacecraft, waiting to be transmitted. Not the case for the Cassini’s Radio Science Subsystem. As soon as its data is collected, it’s already on Earth.

It is the only Cassini experiment whose data you can watch in real time.
- Essam Marouf, RSS Team Member

For the radio science instrument, the radio signals that Cassini transmits to Earth are the experiment, and the NASA Deep Space Network complexes in Australia, Spain and the U.S. are part of the instrument. “It is the only Cassini experiment whose data you can watch in real time,” said Cassini radio science team member Essam Marouf of San Jose State University. And despite the more than 900-million-mile (1.5-billion-kilometer) journey the signal takes from Cassini to Earth, the instrument is extremely sensitive. “Even if you place a sheet of paper in its path, we could sense the change in the Earth-received signal,” Marouf said.

Researchers use the instrument to study the Saturn system in several ways, such as sending the signal through Titan’s atmosphere, or Saturn’s. When the signal reaches Earth, researchers look at how the signal was “bent,” according to Richard French, team leader for the radio science experiment at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

“The amount of bending depends on the density of the atmosphere, and the density of the atmosphere depends on the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere,” French said. “Thus we can infer from our radio signal how much bending there was, how much refraction there was, and from them we determine what the atmosphere’s temperature was.” By repeating the observation, Cassini's radio science team can determine the overall structure of Saturn’s atmosphere (and that of its giant moon Titan) in different locations and across seasons, he said.

Illustration showing ripples in rings.
Radio signals sent by NASA's Cassini spacecraft to Earth through Saturn's rings revealed the presence of highly unusual regular formations of densely grouped ring particles.

The radio science team also studies Saturn’s rings. The instrument sends out three different wavelengths of radio waves -- known as the X, Ka and S bands -- to measure the sizes of particles in the rings and investigate ring structure.

The radio science instrument even uses gravity to see inside worlds. “If there is a liquid ocean in a moon, its gravitational field will be different [compared to its gravity without an ocean],” French said.

A moon’s interior affects its gravitational field, which affects Cassini’s orbit. A change in orbit then affects the frequency of Cassini’s signal to Earth because the radio waves get squished or stretched through the Doppler Effect. The radio science team looks at the altered radio frequency and traces it back to the effects of gravity. “We use the amount of frequency change to determine the speed of the spacecraft, and the speed of the spacecraft is governed by gravity,” French said. “So we don’t have to drill into a moon to infer that there’s an ocean under its surface.”

Through that technique, the radio science team helped determine that Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus probably have deep, subsurface liquid water oceans.


At a Glance

Cassini is the only deep space mission to transmit to Earth at three radio wavelengths (approximately 14 cm wavelength, designated S-band; 4 cm, designated X-band; and 1 cm, designated Ka-band) simultaneously. Click here for data acquisition.

  • Mass (current best estimate) = 14.38 kg
  • Peak Operating Power (current best estimate) = 80.70 W
  • Peak Data Rate (current best estimate) = not applicable: carrier only (the RSS sensing devices are on Earth at the Deep Space Stations in California, Spain and Australia)

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