University of California scientists working at Los Alamos National Laboratory have begun to analyze data from an instrument aboard the joint U.S.-European spacecraft Cassini. Although Cassini has only been orbiting the planet Saturn since July 1, data from the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) has already begun to provide new information about the curious nature of Saturns space environment.
CAPS had been detecting advance readings for several days before Cassini finally crossed the bow shock that exists in the solar wind ahead of the magnetosphere, a huge magnetic field bubble produced in the solar wind by Saturns strong magnetic field. On June 28, the spacecraft entered into the magnetosphere itself and began taking data. From this very preliminary set of measurements, it is apparent that the outer reaches of Saturns magnetosphere are probably populated by plasma captured from the solar wind, but closer to the planet the plasma comes primarily from the rings and/or the inner icy satellites.
According to Michelle Thomsen, the current Los Alamos CAPS project leader, "After many years of design, development and testing, and then the seven-year journey across the solar system, CAPS is finally doing the job it was built to do. We are quickly learning much, but I think we have only begun to understand what CAPS can teach us about Saturn and its space environment over the next few years."
Todd Hanson | EurekAlert!
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