Where an artist would conceptualize to create a beautiful image, MacKenzie said she and other researchers studying the planet as part of the Cassini project try to decipher what is happening in the stunning images they receive.
"That's what being a scientist is," said the
MacKenzie is one of a handful of UI students and faculty who are researchers for the Cassini project -- a collaborative
Barnes and his crew of four students, including MacKenzie, specifically look at data collected from Saturn's moon, Titan. Titan is actually bigger than the planet Mercury and Earth's moon, but MacKenzie said its orbit around Saturn classifies it as a moon.
"What's real neat about it, why we study it, is it has a really thick atmosphere," she said.
Titan's atmosphere enables a cycle of evaporation and falling liquid similar to Earth's rain, MacKenzie said. But unlike Earth, the liquid on Titan is methane and ethane as opposed to water.
"It's so cold on Titan that water is as hard as rocks (are) here," she said.
But what the most exciting aspect of this process has been as of late is the shift in sunlight to Titan's
"For the first time, we're getting a good look at the seas and lakes at Titan's
As a result of the sunlight hitting the northern portion of the moon, MacKenzie said a spectrometer is able to capture images that will give the researchers a better idea of the liquid's chemical nature.
"That's why we're able to get these really stunning pictures of what's going on up there," she said.
MacKenzie said she will also use the images to track global distribution of an identified evaporite, a residue from the standing liquid evaporating into the atmosphere. Mapping the distribution should show where liquid has existed on Titan in the past.
"Some lingering questions are going to be answered, at least I anticipate so," she said.
While Barnes and his students are focused on Titan, Hedman has been analyzing data collected on Saturn's rings and discs since 2004, shortly after Cassini got into the planet's orbit.
"Saturn's rings are very beautiful in pictures, but they're actually very complicated," Hedman said.
The rings and discs are a complex system of particles that orbit Saturn in varying densities depending on their visual light and darkness. Hedman said, in principle, there might be some insight into the discs -- and particles that created the solar system -- if scientists are able to figure out what is happening with Saturn.
"Scientifically that's why we should look at the rings," he said. "Besides, they're just cool."
The rings can also be used as a device to study what is happening inside Saturn.
Scientists have discovered that Saturn vibrates, and the effect of what Hedman called a "Saturnquake" can be seen on the rings. The effects cause the rings to act as a sort of seismograph for the planet, which is gaseous and cannot support scientific instruments.
Hedman said there is constantly something new in the data being produced, and the fun is in figuring out what causes those changes in data.
"The spacecraft is literally a firehose of data," Hedman said.
The Cassini mission is scheduled to end in 2017, and Hedman said he plans to continue working with the program even after the mission is complete. He anticipates there will be so much data left to analyze that scientists will be combing through it for several years after the spacecraft is no longer in orbit.
"It will be a very interesting data set," Hedman said. "It's a cool thing to do, but it will be sad when Cassini is over."
Rudd may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 791-8465. Follow her on Twitter @elizabeth_rudd.
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