Reading tale of ions in Saturn's magnetosphere
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND NEWS RELEASE
Posted: July 2, 2004
The Cassini spacecraft has barely begun its four-year tour around Saturn, but already a University of Maryland sensor is beginning to reveal new data about the immense magnetosphere of the ringed planet.
Designed and built by scientists in the University of Maryland's space physics group, the CHEMS (CHarge Energy Mass Spectrometer) sensor measures ions -- positively charged atoms -- in Saturn's magnetosphere. A planet's magnetosphere is the magnetic field and charged particle environment that surrounds it. The magnetosphere traps ions produced in and around a planet. And it shields a planet from, and interacts with, the solar wind - the high-speed stream of ionized particles flowing out in all directions from the Sun.
"By determining the elemental composition and charge state of the ions within and around Saturn's magnetosphere, CHEMS will identify the sources of the plasma found there and study the processes of plasma acceleration," says Douglas C. Hamilton, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland and leader of the space physics team that designed and built the CHEMS sensor.
"CHEMS has already yielded data indicating the plasma in Saturn's magnetosphere consists mostly of hydrogen and oxygen ions and molecular ions derived from water," says Hamilton. "This suggests that the plasma probably comes from the surfaces of Saturn's icy moons and rings, and not from the atmosphere of Titan, which consists primarily of nitrogen."
Plasmas are the most common form of matter, comprising more than 99 percent of the known visible universe including the Sun and other stars. These ionized gases generate and interact with magnetic and electric fields around planets, stars and other astrophysical environments. Plasma processes can accelerate some ions to incredible energies. Cosmic rays -- which are some of the highest energy plasma particles -- contain "signatures" of the birth and death of stars. Observing the properties of space plasmas and energetic particles provides scientists a rich source of information about the physical processes that energize these materials and the conditions that exist at the sites where this energizing takes place.
MIMI and its science team are led by Stamatios (Tom) M. Krimigis, head of the space department of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Using MIMI, Krimigis, Hamilton and other members of the international MIMI team will profile the plasma environment of charged particles around Saturn and provide the first visible, global images of Saturn's magnetosphere. Gaining a better understanding of Saturn's magnetosphere and its interaction with the solar wind and solar storms promises to also help scientists better understand space weather and its interaction with the magnetosphere of our own planet.
MIMI's sensors combine three critical measurements to create that picture. In addition to Maryland's CHEMS, there is the higher-energy particle detector LEMMS, primarily developed by the Max Planck Institute at Lindau, Germany, that looks at the distribution and strength of energetic ions and electrons near the spacecraft. MIMI's ion and neutral camera, or INCA, uses an APL-developed technique known as energetic neutral atom imaging to provide a global view of the entire magnetosphere - a deep-space mission first. All of MIMI's sensors are linked together by a central computer.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.
UM Group Leads Space Physics Research
Other work has provided fundamental information about the energizing of particles by traveling interplanetary shocks and such diverse topics as the origin of oxygen and sulfur ions in Jupiter's magnetosphere from the volcanoes on the moon Io and the composition and energy content of the Earth's radiation belts.
The plasma and energetic particle observations carried out by the Space Physics Group require novel instrumentation carried on Earth-orbiting satellites and deep-space probes. Instruments are designed and constructed on campus by the group's technical staff, with participation by graduate as well as undergraduate students.
Experiments built by the group are currently operating on 13 spacecraft, including Cassini. Other missions carrying the group's sensors include the Voyager deep-space probes, the Ulysses probe to the solar poles and near-Earth missions such as Geotail, the Solar Anomalous and Magnetospheric Particle Explorer (SAMPEX), WIND, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), and the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE).