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The uncertainty of science: The data from Cassini’s first dive through the gap between Saturn and its innermost ring suggests that the space there has much less material than predicted.
Cassini’s Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument was one of two science instruments with sensors that poke out from the protective shield of the antenna (the other being Cassini’s magnetometer). RPWS detected the hits of hundreds of ring particles per second when it crossed the ring plane just outside of Saturn’s main rings, but only detected a few pings on April 26. When RPWS data are converted to an audio format, dust particles hitting the instrument’s antennas sound like pops and cracks, covering up the usual whistles and squeaks of waves in the charged particle environment that the instrument is designed to detect. The RPWS team expected to hear a lot of pops and cracks on crossing the ring plane inside the gap, but instead, the whistles and squeaks came through surprisingly clearly on April 26.
“It was a bit disorienting — we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear,” said William Kurth, RPWS team lead at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. “I’ve listened to our data from the first dive several times and I can probably count on my hands the number of dust particle impacts I hear.” The team’s analysis suggests Cassini only encountered a few particles as it crossed the gap — none larger than those in smoke (about 1 micron across).
The second dive through the rings will occur tomorrow, with data sent down the next day. Because the gap is emptier than expected, they will not have to protect the spacecraft so thoroughly, and will thus have more instruments gathering data during the fly through.