Saturn's Rings and Rotation

Saturn’s distinctive rings were observed in unprecedented detail by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, and scientists have now used those observations to probe the interior of the giant planet and obtain the first precise determination of its rotation rate. The length of a day on Saturn, according to their calculations, is 10 hours 33 minutes and 38 seconds. The researchers studied wave patterns created within Saturn’s rings by the planet’s internal vibrations. In effect, the rings act as an extremely sensitive seismograph by responding to vibrations within the planet itself. Similar to Earth’s vibrations from an earthquake, Saturn responds to perturbations by vibrating at frequencies determined by its internal structure. Heat-driven convection in the interior is the most likely source of the vibrations. These internal oscillations cause the density at any particular place within the planet to fluctuate, which makes the gravitational field outside the planet oscillate at the same frequencies. The idea that Saturn’s rings could be used to study the seismology of the planet was first suggested in 1982, long before the necessary observations were possible.

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