Research Article

A radiation belt of energetic protons located between Saturn and its rings

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Science  05 Oct 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6410, eaat1962
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat1962

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Cassini's final phase of exploration

The Cassini spacecraft spent 13 years orbiting Saturn; as it ran low on fuel, the trajectory was changed to sample regions it had not yet visited. A series of orbits close to the rings was followed by a Grand Finale orbit, which took the spacecraft through the gap between Saturn and its rings before the spacecraft was destroyed when it entered the planet's upper atmosphere. Six papers in this issue report results from these final phases of the Cassini mission. Dougherty et al. measured the magnetic field close to Saturn, which implies a complex multilayer dynamo process inside the planet. Roussos et al. detected an additional radiation belt trapped within the rings, sustained by the radioactive decay of free neutrons. Lamy et al. present plasma measurements taken as Cassini flew through regions emitting kilometric radiation, connected to the planet's aurorae. Hsu et al. determined the composition of large, solid dust particles falling from the rings into the planet, whereas Mitchell et al. investigated the smaller dust nanograins and show how they interact with the planet's upper atmosphere. Finally, Waite et al. identified molecules in the infalling material and directly measured the composition of Saturn's atmosphere.

Science, this issue p. eaat5434, p. eaat1962, p. eaat2027, p. eaat3185, p. eaat2236, p. eaat2382

Structured Abstract


Most magnetized planets are known to possess radiation belts, where high-energy charged particles are trapped in large numbers. The possibility that a radiation belt could exist also in the confined region between Saturn and its main rings has been proposed on the basis of remote sensing observations and simulations. It was not until the final 5 months of the Cassini mission that in situ measurements were obtained from this region with the Magnetosphere Imaging Instrument (MIMI). This paper provides an overview of these measurements and their interpretation.


Saturn’s main rings prevent the inward transport of trapped charged particles in the magnetosphere. Material from the outer radiation belts cannot directly access the low-altitude region within the rings. The isolation of this region allows the study of energetic particle source and loss processes because it is only indirectly coupled to the dynamics of the rest of the magnetosphere. Potential sources include cosmic ray albedo neutron decay (CRAND) and multiple-charge exchange, whereas losses are likely dominated by energy deposition and scattering of trapped particles by dust and atmospheric neutrals. All of these mechanisms involve charged particle interactions with materials in space, meaning that MIMI measurements can provide information to probe the material itself—particularly the tenuous D-ring, the innermost component of Saturn’s main rings, which is difficult to constrain by remote sensing observations.


We observed an inner radiation belt extending between 1.03 and 1.22 Saturn radii (1 RS = 60,268 km) at the equatorial plane, dominated by protons with energies from 25 MeV up to the giga–electron volt range. This belt is limited by the atmosphere at its inner edge and by the D73 ringlet (at 1.22 RS), a component of the D-ring, at its outer boundary. Another ringlet (D68 at 1.12 RS) splits the trapped particle population in two. The outer sector overlaps with the extended D-ring, and its intensity is reduced compared with that of the inner sector, owing to proton losses on ring dust. The proton angular distributions are highly anisotropic with fluxes that are orders of magnitude higher near the magnetic equator compared with fluxes of particles that can reach high latitudes. No time variability could be discerned in the >25-MeV proton population over the 5-month period of the observations. Trapping of lower-energy (tens of kilo–electron volt) protons was clearly observed in at least one case by imaging the emission of energetic neutral atoms (ENAs) coming from below ~1.06 RS (altitude < 3800 km). Energetic electrons (18 keV to several mega–electron volts) and heavy ions (27 keV per nucleon to hundreds of mega–electron volts per nucleon), if present, have fluxes close to or lower than the detection limit of the MIMI sensors.


The radial profile, the stability of the >25-MeV proton fluxes, and the lack of heavy ions are features consistent with a radiation belt originating from CRAND. The strong anisotropy of the proton distributions is primarily the result of proton losses in collisions with atmospheric neutrals, though an anisotropy in the production of CRAND protons from Saturn’s rings may also contribute. The low-altitude, kilo–electron volt proton population is transient and derives from charge stripping of planetward ENAs, which are generated at the variable magnetospheric ring current.

Saturn’s proton radiation belts.

Saturn’s permanent proton radiation belt extends outward to the orbit of the moon Tethys but is segmented because of proton absorption by moons and rings. The innermost radiation belt (inset) threads through Saturn’s D-ring and contains protons with energies up to several giga–electron volts, much higher than observed outside the main rings. These protons are among the β-decay products of neutrons, which are released through galactic cosmic ray collisions with Saturn’s rings (CRAND process).


Saturn has a sufficiently strong dipole magnetic field to trap high-energy charged particles and form radiation belts, which have been observed outside its rings. Whether stable radiation belts exist near the planet and inward of the rings was previously unknown. The Cassini spacecraft’s Magnetosphere Imaging Instrument obtained measurements of a radiation belt that lies just above Saturn’s dense atmosphere and is decoupled from the rest of the magnetosphere by the planet’s A- to C-rings. The belt extends across the D-ring and comprises protons produced through cosmic ray albedo neutron decay and multiple charge-exchange reactions. These protons are lost to atmospheric neutrals and D-ring dust. Strong proton depletions that map onto features on the D-ring indicate a highly structured and diverse dust environment near Saturn.

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