Rain from Saturn’s Rings Heat the Planet #SpaceSaturday

Using archival data and more recent observations of Saturn from a variety of current and retired spacecraft, a researcher has found a surprise hiding in plain view for more than 40 years: icy particles raining down from the vast ring system help heat the planet’s upper atmosphere.

Data anomalies are essential to the pursuits of science. Sometimes outliers in data samples can be dismissed as errors of measurement. And sometimes odd data can lead to new discoveries. Data from the Voyager  1 space probe, long dismissed as “noise,” has proven to be evidence that ice rain from the rings of Saturn heped warm the planet. Here’s more from Astronomy Now:

“Everything is driven by ring particles cascading into the atmosphere at specific latitudes. They modify the upper atmosphere, changing the composition,” said Lotfi Ben-Jaffel of the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris and the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona.

“And then you also have collisional processes with atmospheric gasses that are probably heating the atmosphere at a specific altitude.”

The Voyager data were dismissed at the time as the result of “noisy” detectors. But all of the spacecraft appeared to detect a persistent excess of ultraviolet radiation from atomic hydrogen in the upper atmosphere, a so-called Lyman-alpha bulge. The data hinted that something was contaminating and heating Saturn’s upper atmosphere from the outside.

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