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Saturn’s Rings Are Full of Organic Compounds

Saturn has to be both the coolest and weirdest planet in the solar system. It’s so strange that it’s inspired countless conspiracy theories including the, admittedly awesome, idea Saturn is where demons live. No other planet is cool enough to justify that level of insanity. In 2017, the spacecraft Cassini engaged its final suicide mission, hurling itself with all haste into the gas giant and topping off the slew of astounding images it already sent back Earth-side with a detailed analysis of the chemical composition of Saturn’s atmosphere and its signature rings. And wouldn’t you know it, Saturn got even weirder.

According to a new study published in Science, the chemical composition of Saturn’s rings is a far cry from what scientists initially expected. It was long assumed that the rings of Saturn were composed of almost entirely water, but the data from Cassini shows that amidst all that water are other complex chemicals—including a large amount of organic matter such as methane.

Now, the word organic is a pretty loaded term. We’re not talking organic farming here, and they didn’t find the demons. Organic, in the chemical sense, means chemicals that include carbon in their molecular structure. While they are certainly not saying that they found life in Saturn’s rings, organic compounds do form the basis of all life.

Cassini and Saturn

Artist’s depiction of the Cassini spacecraft

According to Thomas Cravens, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas and co-author of the paper:

“What was a surprise was the mass spectrometer saw methane — no one expected that. Also, it saw some carbon dioxide, which was unexpected. The rings were thought to be entirely water. But the innermost rings are fairly contaminated, as it turns out, with organic material caught up in ice.”

The researchers also found that the rings are expelling these chemical compounds into Saturn’s atmosphere, and may be gradually changing the chemical makeup of the planet. According to Cravens:

The material is coming into Saturn at high speeds because the rings are moving faster than the atmosphere quite a bit. It doesn’t just drop in gently. It comes flying in there like a satellite re-entering our own planet. These dust grains moving at satellite speed, depositing energy that can dissociate the atmosphere.

Saturn and its rings.

How can you not love this huge, weird, and creepy thing?

According to the scientists, this new understanding of Saturn’s rings and atmosphere can help us better understand the underlying processes of the solar system at large, including how planetary rings are formed in the first place, and how long they last. Unfortunately for old Saturn, the data seems to suggest that the rings are slowly being depleted. They’re expelling matter faster than they’re being refilled. As Cravens put it, there’s “a hole in the bucket.” This may also suggest that Jupiter’s now nearly invisible ring was once as impressive as Saturn’s.

It seems that the more we learn, the more unanswered questions are revealed. With our technology progressing faster and faster, giving us more detailed windows into our mysterious neighbors there’s no telling what we could find. It’s probably demons, though.