What does a void sound like? (Insert the name of your least favorite cable news channel here.) Now that we’ve had our fun, NASA has provided us with the sound of an actual void and you’ll probably find it eerie, yet in most cases preferable to cable news.
On April 26th, the Cassini spacecraft passed between Saturn and its innermost ring and NASA engineers turned on a recording instrument. Believe it or not, they were hoping to capture the sounds of – cue Simon & Garfunkel – silence. Noise would be an indicator that the void isn’t an actual void but a corridor filled with dust or larger particles … and that would not be good for Cassini, which is scheduled to make many more passes through the area prior to its eventual death plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere in September.
While not a deal-breaker – or in this case, a dive-breaker – an abundance of dust would force NASA engineers to turn the craft so that its 13-foot-wide antenna would shield instruments from a particle bombardment, since even tiny ones can wreak havoc on them and there’s no electronics store nor robotic repair person around to fix them.
As you can hear in the audio, the Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument picked up something.
RPWS detected the hits of hundreds of ring particles per second when it crossed the ring plane just outside of Saturn’s main rings, but only detected a few pings on April 26.
Is that good or bad news? William Kurth, RPWS team leader at the University of Iowa, gave the answer.
It was a bit disorienting – we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear. 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.
In other words, the so-called void is really void of dangerous — at least to Cassini — dust particles. The RPWS detected very few radio and plasma waves to convert into the sounds of pops and cracks that would indicate particles. That means Cassini gets the go-ahead to keep on diving like Greg Louganis going for the gold. Twenty more dives are scheduled, including one on May 2 whose results were not available as of this writing.
While the sounds — or lack of them — from Saturn will probably not inspire any songs, they’ve inspired NASA engineers to keep on analyzing the data to figure out why a planet with so much stuff orbiting it has a such a big circle of nothing inside the innermost ring. As Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a press release:
The region between the rings and Saturn is ‘the big empty,’ apparently. Cassini will stay the course, while the scientists work on the mystery of why the dust level is much lower than expected.
The Big Empty … sounds like the perfect description for cable news.