May 1, 2017
The sounds and spectrograms in these two videos represent data collected by the Radio and Plasma Wave Science, or RPWS, instrument on NASA's Cassini spacecraft, as it crossed the plane of Saturn's rings on two separate orbits.
As tiny, dust-sized particles strike Cassini and the three 33-foot-long (10-meter-long), RPWS antennas, the particles are vaporized into tiny clouds of plasma, or electrically excited gas. These tiny explosions make a small electrical signal (a voltage impulse) that RPWS can detect. Researchers on the RPWS team convert the data into visible and audio formats, like those seen here, for analysis. Ring particle hits sound like pops and cracks in the audio.
The first video (figure A and top image in the montage) was made using RPWS data from a ring plane crossing on Dec. 18, 2016, when the spacecraft passed through the faint, dusty Janus-Epimetheus ring (see PIA08328 for an image that features this ring). This was during Cassini's 253rd orbit of Saturn, known as Rev 253. As is typical for this sort of ring crossing, the number of audible pops and cracks rises to a maximum around the time of a ring crossing and trails off afterward. The peak of the ring density is obvious in the colored display at the red spike.
The second video (figure B and bottom image in the montage) was made using data RPWS collected as Cassini made the first dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings as part of the mission's Grand Finale, on April 26, 2017. Very few pops and cracks are audible in this data at all.
In comparing the two data sets, it is apparent that while Cassini detected many ring-particles striking Cassini when passing through the Janus-Epimetheus ring, the first Grand Finale crossing -- in stark contrast -- was nearly particle free. The unexpected finding that that the gap is so empty is a new mystery that scientists are eager to understand.
On April 26, 2017, Cassini dove through the previously unexplored ring-planet gap as speeds approaching 75,000 mph (121,000 kph), using its large, dish-shaped high-gain antenna (or HGA) as a shield to protect the rest of the spacecraft and its instruments from potential impacts by small, icy ring particles. Two of Cassini's instruments, the magnetometer and RPWS, extend beyond the protective antenna dish, and were exposed to the particle environment during the dive.
The Cassini team used this data from RPWS, along with inputs from other components on the spacecraft, to make the decision of whether the HGA would be needed as a shield on most future Grand Finale dives through the planet-ring gap. Based on these inputs the team determined this protective measure would not be needed, allowing the team's preferred mode of science operations to proceed, with Cassini able to point its science instruments in any direction necessary to obtain scientists' desired observations. (Four of the 21 remaining dives pass through the inner D ring. The mission had already planned to use the HGA as a shield for those passes.)
The colors on the spectrogram indicate the emitted power of the radio waves, with red as the most powerful. Time is on the x-axis, and frequency of the radio waves is on the y-axis.
The audible whistle in the April 26 data, just before ring plane crossing, is due to a type of plasma wave that will be the subject of further study. In addition, there is an abrupt change beginning at the 09:00:00 mark on the spectrogram that represents a change in the RPWS antenna's operational configuration (from monopole mode to dipole mode).
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, Calif. manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The radio and plasma wave science team is based at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.