by Staff Writers
Tel Aviv, Israel (SPX) Mar 26, 2015
Tracking the rotation speed of solid planets, like the Earth and Mars, is a relatively simple task: Just measure the time it takes for a surface feature to roll into view again. But giant gas planets Jupiter and Saturn are more problematic for planetary scientists, as they both lack measureable solid surfaces and are covered by thick layers of clouds, foiling direct visual measurements by space probes.
Saturn has presented an even greater challenge to scientists, as different parts of this sweltering ball of hydrogen and helium are known to rotate at different speeds, whereas its rotation axis and magnetic pole are aligned.
A new method devised by Tel Aviv University researcher Dr. Ravit Helled, published recently in Nature, proposes a new determination of Saturn's rotation period and offers insight into the internal structure of the planet, its weather patterns, and the way it formed.
The method, by Dr. Helled of the Department of Geosciences at TAU's Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences and Drs. Eli Galanti and Yohai Kaspi of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science, is based on Saturn's measured gravitational field and the unique fact that its east-west axis is shorter than its north-south axis.
According to the new method, Saturn's day is 10 hours, 32 minutes and 44 seconds long. When the researchers applied their method to Jupiter, whose rotation period is already well known, the results were identical to the conventional measurement, reflecting the consistency and accuracy of the method.
Between sunup and sundown on Saturn
"But when the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn 30 years later, the rotation period was measured as eight minutes longer. It was then understood that Saturn's rotation period could not be inferred from the fluctuations in radio radiation measurements linked to Saturn's magnetic field, and was in fact still unknown." The Cassini spacecraft had measured a signal linked to Saturn's magnetic field with a periodicity of 10 hours, 47 minutes and 6 seconds long -- slower than previous recordings.
"Since then, there has been this big open question concerning Saturn's rotation period," said Dr. Helled.
"In the last few years, there have been different theoretical attempts to pin down an answer. We came up with an answer based on the shape and gravitational field of the planet. We were able to look at the big picture, and harness the physical properties of the planet to determine its rotational period."
Helled's method is based on a statistical optimization method that involved several solutions. First, the solutions had to reproduce Saturn's observed properties (within their uncertainties): its mass and gravitational field. Then the researchers harnessed this information to search for the rotation period on which the most solutions converged.
Narrowing the margin of error
"We cannot fully understand Saturn's internal structure without an accurate determination of its rotation period," said Dr. Helled. Knowledge of Saturn's composition provides information on giant planet formation in general and on the physical and chemical properties of the solar nebula from which the solar system was formed.
"The rotation period of a giant planet is a fundamental physical property, and its value affects many aspects of the physics of these planets, including their interior structure and atmospheric dynamics," said Dr. Helled. "We were determined to make as few assumptions as possible to get the rotational period. If you improve your measurement of Saturn's gravitational field, you narrow the error margin."
The researchers hope to apply their method to other gaseous planets in the solar system such as Uranus and Neptune. Their new technique could also be applied in the future to study gaseous planets orbiting other stars.
American Friends of Tel Aviv University
Explore The Ring World of Saturn and her moons
Jupiter and its Moons
The million outer planets of a star called Sol
News Flash at Mercury
|The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2014 - Space Media Network. All websites are published in Australia and are solely subject to Australian law and governed by Fair Use principals for news reporting and research purposes. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA news reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement, agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement All images and articles appearing on Space Media Network have been edited or digitally altered in some way. Any requests to remove copyright material will be acted upon in a timely and appropriate manner. Any attempt to extort money from Space Media Network will be ignored and reported to Australian Law Enforcement Agencies as a potential case of financial fraud involving the use of a telephonic carriage device or postal service.|