University of Iowa’s Latest Discoveries about Saturn

Jan 2, 2018

Last summer the space probe Cassini finished 14 years of exploring the planet Saturn and its moons.  The craft included the Radio Plasma Waves and Science instrument made by the University of Iowa to measure Saturn’s radio, plasma, and magnetic properties.

This image of Saturn's rings was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 13, 2017. It is among the last images Cassini sent back to Earth.
Credit Cassini / NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This mission may be over, but scientist Bill Kurth is still busy studying the RPWS data from the readings taken by Cassini during its final 22 orbits called “The Grand Finale.” 

Last month a study co-authored by Kurth was published in the journal Science about the ring barrier closest to Saturn’s atmosphere.

“Cassini was never designed to go into Saturn’s ionosphere, yet we were able to make measurements there and I’m confident that over the next year and the next decades, we’ll understand a lot more about Saturn than we might have.”

Research scientist Bill Kurth in his Iowa City office.
Credit John Pemble / Iowa Public Radio

Kurth says exploring this part of Saturn was not part of the original mission plan.

“We find that very exciting and there’s actually probably half a dozen instruments on Cassini that will be involved with dissecting those data in great detail, putting the data sets together, and perhaps most importantly incorporating data from what we call the final plunge,” says Kurth.

The final plunge was Cassini’s last orbit, as it was deliberately sent into the planet’s atmosphere to be destroyed on September 15th. 

Kurth, in collaboration with colleagues around the world, will continue releasing their findings about Saturn’s ionosphere later this year.

A replica of the RPWS instrument in a University of Iowa exhibit.
Credit John Pemble / Iowa Public Radio