Saturn hosts a fuzzy core of hydrogen and helium and not a dense ball of nickel and iron, as initially thought.
The new study, published on preprint server arXiv, is based on analyzing the wobbles in Saturn’s innermost main ring. These oscillations seem to be originating from Saturn’s inner core, which influences the planet’s external gravitational field. Saturn’s moons influence only the outer rings.
According to the study, the core is a fuzzy region extending to 60% of the planet’s radius and comprises mostly hydrogen and helium with a gradual mixing of heavier elements. It is estimated to contain about 17 Earth masses of rocks and ice.
Scientists can probe the inner structure of a cosmic body by analyzing the acoustic waves and oscillations inside them. On Earth, quakes send similar waves through the various inner layers that help us identify structures that otherwise cannot be seen. On the stars, the acoustic waves manifest as brightness fluctuations. But on Saturn, we cannot use a seismometer, and it doesn’t produce any brightness fluctuations either.
A few years ago, scientists noticed signature patterns in Saturn’s inner C ring. And these patterns prove to be an excellent tool in analyzing the densities of the planet, right to the core. Thus a new field study, kronoseismology, emerged.
According to astrophysicists Christopher Mankovich and Jim Fuller of Caltech in their paper, their models place tight constraints on the mass and size of the heavy element core of Saturn, even as the dilute nature of this core requires a more nuanced description than in traditional layered models.
These findings throw a new perspective on our understanding of the planetary formation, especially the gas giants. It was thought that during the formation of these gas giants, the heavier materials sink towards the center, forming a solid core and less dense gas surrounding the outer regions. But the recent model shows a gradual distribution of materials that requires extensive analysis and study.
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