In situ measurements of Saturn’s ionosphere show that it is dynamic and interacts with the rings

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Science  05 Jan 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6371, pp. 66-68
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao4134

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Cassini enters Saturn's ionosphere

The upper reaches of most planetary atmospheres contain a layer that is ionized by incoming solar radiation—the ionosphere. As it went through its final orbits around Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft dipped close enough to the planet to pass directly through the ionosphere. Wahlund et al. examined the plasma data collected in situ and found that Saturn's ionosphere is highly variable and interacts with the planet's inner ring. They also observed decreases in ionization within regions shaded from the Sun by the rings.

Science, this issue p. 66


The ionized upper layer of Saturn’s atmosphere, its ionosphere, provides a closure of currents mediated by the magnetic field to other electrically charged regions (for example, rings) and hosts ion-molecule chemistry. In 2017, the Cassini spacecraft passed inside the planet’s rings, allowing in situ measurements of the ionosphere. The Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument detected a cold, dense, and dynamic ionosphere at Saturn that interacts with the rings. Plasma densities reached up to 1000 cubic centimeters, and electron temperatures were below 1160 kelvin near closest approach. The density varied between orbits by up to two orders of magnitude. Saturn’s A- and B-rings cast a shadow on the planet that reduced ionization in the upper atmosphere, causing a north-south asymmetry.

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