Probing Saturn’s Interior

Saturn's distinctive rings provide clues to the planet's interior.

Saturn’s rings are one of the most iconic sights in our solar system, and scientists are using them to learn more about the planet they surround. Until recently, scientists believed that gas giants like Saturn and Jupiter have dense, rocky cores buried beneath their gassy atmospheres. But a new study of Saturn’s rings suggests that Saturn’s core is far larger and more fluid than assumed.

When the interior of Saturn wobbles, it causes gravitational shifts that affect the material making up its rings. By studying disturbances in the ring system — a technique known as ring seismology — researchers can deduce what motions took place inside the planet to cause the changes in the rings.

Using data from the Cassini spacecraft, the authors determined that Saturn’s core likely spreads to nearly 60% of its radius, and, rather than being dense and rocky, the core is a relatively fluid mixture of ice, rock, and metallic fluids. The core diffuses gradually into the gaseous atmosphere, and it’s stably stratified against convection, so its wobbles are quite small for the planet’s size. (Image credit: rings – NASA; illustration – Caltech/R. Hurt; research credit: C. Mankovich and J. Fuller; via Gizmodo)

Illustration of Saturn's interior showing a large, wobbly core composed of a mixture of ice, rock and metallic fluid.
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