JPL’s Cassini Spacecraft Records Spooky Sounds in Space – Pasadena Now

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JPL’s Cassini Spacecraft Records Spooky Sounds in Space

Cassini Finds 'The Big Empty' Close to Saturn Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize waits for Cassini's signal with the spacecraft's operations team in mission control at JPL on April 26, 2017. Illustration: Cassini flys by Saturn The Sound of Science: Comparison of Cassini Ring Crossings NASA's Cassini spacecraft is shown diving through the gap between Saturn and its rings in this artist's depiction. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

From the far, far reaches of the Saturnian system, the Cassini spacecraft captured the most peculiar, chilling and downright hair-raising sounds last week, scientists said.

The NASA team working on data collected from the spacecraft’s Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument have been expecting to hear a lot of pops and cracks as dust particles hit Cassini’s surfaces on crossing the ring plane inside the gap, but instead, eerie and spooky shrieks and whistles of waves in the charged particle environment of space came through surprisingly clearly and hauntingly.

Engineers working for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft program out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are now collecting data from the spacecraft’s second dive into the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings, after the first dive on April 26 recorded sounds that indicate the region appears to be relatively dust-free.

The team’s analysis of the data and audio suggests Cassini only encountered a few particles as it crossed the gap – none larger than those in smoke which are about 1 micron across.

“The region between the rings and Saturn is ‘the big empty,’ apparently,” Earl Maize, Cassini Project Manager at JPL, said. Cassini will stay the course, while the scientists work on the mystery of why the dust level is much lower than expected.”

NASA said a dustier environment in the gap might have meant the spacecraft’s saucer-shaped main antenna would be needed as a shield during most future dives through the ring plane. This would have forced changes to how and when Cassini’s instruments would be able to make observations.

With the new data, it now appears that the “plan B” option is no longer needed.

Cassini’s RPWS instrument was one of two science instruments with sensors that poke out from the protective shield of the antenna, the other being Cassini’s magnetometer. When the spacecraft crossed the ring plane just outside the planet’s main rings, RPWS detected the hits of hundreds of ring particles per second. It only detected a few pings on April 26.

The sound files were delivered ahead of today’s leg of the spacecraft’s “Grand Finale” which saw it bounce into the gap between Saturn and its rings for the second time just hours ago. It will take several more hours before Cassini delivers its data and new audio from this second dive to the ground team’s at JPL and at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

The April 26 dive was not only the first time any man-made spacecraft has recorded data indicating what the gap between Saturn and its rings sounds like; it was also the first time a spacecraft has ever ventured into that region.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL also designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

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