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American Association for the Advancement of Science

A closer look at Saturn and its rings

This mosaic of the Saturn system, taken by Cassini, glows with scattered light from tiny dust grains. The sun is obscured by the planet in this unusual geometry.
[Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/CICLOPS]

The Cassini spacecraft was launched into space by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. This international space mission reached Saturn almost six years ago, and it has been collecting data from the planet ever since. Now, researchers are learning more than ever about Saturn, and Cassini's detailed observations are bringing the planet into clearer focus than ever before.

The large, gaseous planet has many moons, as well as the most extensive and complex ring system in the entire solar system. To learn more about Saturn, scientists are combining Cassini's data with old data from the Voyager space mission, launched decades ago, and observations made from telescopes on Earth.

The Cassini Spacecraft took this color image (enhanced in brightness to emphasize the rings) from high above Saturn’s north pole in 2007. The Sun illuminates the south side of the rings at this time so the dense B ring appears dark.
[Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/CICLOPS]

Jeffrey Cuzzi and his colleagues analyzed this collected data, and discovered many new details about Saturn's rings, which are made mostly of water ice and have many different layers to them. Based on data from Cassini's near-infrared cameras, these scientists suggest that a mysterious reddish coloration—which contaminates portions of Saturn's ring system—could be caused by small clusters of carbon rings or by negatively charged iron compounds.

They also document the rings' constantly changing features, which seem to be affected by strong evolutionary processes over very short periods of time. Cuzzi and the other scientists say that the features of the rings change over just years, months, or even days.

These scientists also say that many of the cosmic processes shaping Saturn's rings can be observed in protoplanetary disks—the early stages of a brand new planet.