NASA’s Cassini spacecraft explored the inner edge of the rings of Saturn for the first time, and Phys.org reports that it made a surprising discovery: nothing. “Scientists have been surprised to find that not all that much — not even space dust — lies between Saturn’s iconic rings.” After the first pass, the NASA official managing the project described the the region between the rings and Saturn as “the big empty.” An anonymous reader quotes the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Cassini also beamed back pictures and other essential data as it maneuvered the 1,500-mile-wide space between the solar system’s second largest planet and its icy rings. The images, which take 78 minutes to make the billion-mile trip back to Earth, reveal a blazing, mysterious process of alternating light and darkness in the rings that scientists will be working for years to understand. That seems only fair since it has already taken 20 years for Cassini to be in a position to do what it is doing so far.
Between now and September, Cassini will make 22 dives between Saturn’s rings and the planet, clocking at an impressive 76,800 mph each time. The end result should be a treasure trove of stunning images of the planet and its diverse and mysterious rings, along with detailed maps of the gas giant’s gravity, magnetic fields and atmospheric conditions. On Sept. 15, it will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, streaming data back to Earth as it makes its descent of no return.
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