NASA saw nothing in Cassini's first dive between Saturn and its rings, but it did hear... something

Picture: Getty Images

Space has a sound, and it’s eerie.

Specifically, the space between Saturn and its rings, which NASA’s Cassini spacecraft just dove into this morning for the second of a planned 22 trips to explore the region.

If it survives, that is. NASA engineers have cleverly inverted Cassini so that its antenna rig protects it from particles whizzing by, and any successful foray there and back can be counted as a success.

The odds of return from each of those dives rose substantially this week when the first revealed what the Cassini team labelled “the big empty”. The region is relatively free of any particles – even dust.

That left engineers delighted, and scientists puzzled.

The sounds they were listening for were these pops and crackles which are tiny particles bursting into clouds of plasma as they hit Cassini and its three Radio and Plasma Wave Science antennas:

That was on December 18 last year when Cassini zoomed through Saturn’s faint Janus-Epimetheus ring.

Now listen to what space sounds like when there’s comparatively nothing in it, as we’ve just learnt about what lies between Saturn and its rings:

The only highlight is that whistle building just before the ring plane crossing. It’s some form of plasma wave which has given the Cassini team something to investigate.

“It was a bit disorienting – we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear,” William Kurth, RPWS team lead at the University of Iowa said.

“I’ve listened to our data from the first dive several times and I can probably count on my hands the number of dust particle impacts I hear.”

The visual side of things, which is probably more interesting to most Cassini fans, gave us our closest-ever views of Saturn’s stormy cloud tops.

They were pretty grainy, but Cassini was clipping along about 45 times faster than a speeding bullet.

And as more data arrives back on Earth, the team promises the images will get more detailed. In particular, they’ve promised a new movie of the hexagonal hurricane, which is about as wide as two Earths near, Saturn’s north pole.

Eventually, as it’s running out of fuel, NASA will crash Cassini into the planet to save it from doing the same into one of Saturn’s ocean moons and potentially contaminating them.

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