Saturn’s clouds have roots deeper inside the planet’s atmosphere than scientists previously thought, and Saturn’s rings — now believed to have formed in the last 200 million years — appear to be raining organic molecules down on the planet, according to observations made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft last year in the final weeks of its mission.
Initial results show there are heavier particles, including organic molecules like methane, embedded in the material raining down from the D ring. And the ratio of water ice in the “ring rain” is lower than the percentage of water in the rings themselves, suggesting the water has been lost. That discovery was unexpected.
Researchers are now on the hunt for the source of the carbon-bearing organic molecules. They could be brought in from external sources, such as Saturn’s moons or comets, scientists said. Saturn’s rings have a muted reddish hue when analysts exaggerate their color in imagery. “Are they red because of good, old-fashioned rust like Mars, or are they red because of the same kinds of organic materials … that make carrots, tomatoes and watermelon red?” Cuzzi said. “To me, this answers the question of what makes the rings red. It’s organics.”
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