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Heating Saturn

August 19, 2015

The beautiful planet Saturn is lining up between the balance scales and the head of the scorpion right now. It looks like a bright golden star, about a third of the way up the southwestern sky at nightfall. The scales of Libra line up to the right of Saturn, with the scorpion to its lower left.

Saturn is the solar system’s second-largest planet. It’s best known for its beautiful rings. But a team of researchers recently peered deep into the giant planet’s interior. They didn’t get anywhere near Saturn, though. Instead, they used the Z machine at Sandia National Laboratories, which simulated conditions thousands of miles below Saturn’s cloudtops.

Astronomers have theorized that Saturn’s interior contains a layer of hydrogen that’s squeezed so tightly that it forms a metal. The metallic hydrogen may mix with helium, forming droplets that “rain” toward the core. The droplets are squeezed by Saturn’s gravity, which heats the planet’s interior.

The Z machine uses powerful pulses of electricity to generate a strong magnetic field. Researchers used the magnetic field to squeeze a sample of deuterium, which is a heavy version of hydrogen. They then measured the pressure at which the deuterium changed to a metallic form.

The researchers say their results will help astronomers model Saturn’s interior more accurately. That’ll provide a better understanding of how the helium rain forms and how it heats the insides of this beautiful planet.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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