NASA image of Cassini.

The Cassini space probe finished its exploration of Saturn last fall and University of Iowa researchers are still busy analyzing massive amounts of data.

U-I scientist Bill Kurth, who helped build some of the instruments onboard the craft, is publishing studies on readings taken by Cassini as it passed through the planet’s rings. Kurth says it was the first time measurements were taken of Saturn’s ionosphere.

“We find that very exciting,” Kurth says. “There’s actually probably half a dozen instruments on Cassini that will be involved with dissecting those data in great detail, putting the data sets together, and perhaps most importantly, incorporating data from what we call the final plunge.” The spacecraft was deliberately sent into the planet’s atmosphere in September and it was destroyed, ending its 20-year mission. Kurth’s latest report focuses on Cassini’s passage through the ring barrier closest to Saturn’s atmosphere. He says that pass was not part of the original mission plan.

“Cassini was never designed to go into Saturn’ ionosphere, yet we were able to make measurements there,” he says, “and I’m confident that over the next year and the next decades, we’ll understand a lot more about Saturn than we might have.”

Kurth says the next several years will be filled with discoveries as scientists around the world work together. His new findings were just published in the journal Science and he says he will report more findings later this year.

(Thanks to John Pemble, Iowa Public Radio)