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Updated: July 8th, 2008 05:26 PM CDT

NASA Finds Saturn's Moons May Be Creating New Rings

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When viewed by Cassini's infrared instrument, one of the rings in the Cassini Division has unusual coloring and brightening, a trait it shares withfresh, faint rings like the F ring, or those in the Encke Gap in Saturn'souter A ring.

Saturn's smallest moons have weak gravity and cannot retain any loose material on their surfaces. When these moons are struck by rapidly moving interplanetary meteoroids, this loose material is blasted off their surfaces and into Saturn orbit, creating diffuse rings along the moons' orbital paths. Collisions among several moonlets, or clumps of boulder-sized rubble, might also lead to debris trails. For instance, Saturn's G ring seems not to have any single moon large enough to see; it might have formed from a recent breakup of a moon.

The unusual viewing geometry provided other insights into the changing nature of Saturn's rings. In addition to the dazzling images, data from Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer also show distinct color differences, indicating variations in composition and in microscopic particles in the Cassini Division, the diffuse E- and G-rings, lying outside the main rings, and the D ring, which is the ring closest to Saturn.

"These tiny grains are like spices -- even a little bit of material can alter the ring's character," said Matt Hedman , another Cassini scientist at Cornell. Color variation in the rings might imply particles are being sorted by size.

"We expected to see things we haven't seen before, but we are really, really puzzled by these new images of Saturn's main ring system," said Phil Nicholson , of Cornell, Cassini visual and infrared spectrometer team member."The rings appear very different, with none of their usual calling card of water-ice features. There are hints that other material besides ice might finally be detected within the rings."


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