A massive eruption of atomic oxygen from Saturns outer rings, seen by Cassinis ultraviolet camera as the spacecraft neared its destination, may be an indication that the planets wispy E ring is eroding so fast that it could disappear within 100 million years if not replenished.
Cassinis Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS) detected the oxygen atoms spewing into a huge cloud on the dark side of Saturns rings as Cassini prepared to enter orbit around Saturn in January 2004, said Donald Shemansky, professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering in the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering and a co-investigator on the Cassini ultraviolet imaging team. Data indicated that about 275 million pounds (125 million kilograms) of oxygen was abruptly released in a short period of time. "This was our first surprise in the ultraviolet," said Shemansky, who will analyze ultraviolet data during Cassinis four-year tour of Saturn and its rings with Janet Hallett, a postdoctoral aerospace research associate in the USC Viterbi School.
"We arent sure yet whether this was a transient event or part of a routine recycling process in Saturns magnetosphere," he said. "Right now scientists are speculating that the oxygen eruption may have been caused by a collision of ice particles from the planets distant E ring with material in one of the main ring systems, A, B or C. Or it could have been a meteorite collision or an eruption of icy slush on Enceladus, a moon that orbits in the E ring."
Diane Ainsworth | EurekAlert!
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