A diagram of Saturns rings illustrating the paths taken by the star Omicron Ceti during four recent occulatations observed by the Cassini spacecraft. Bars at each path show the amount of light that filtered through the rings at points along the occultation. Inset boxes illustrate the orientation of gravitational wakes relative to the direction from the spacecraft to the star at select points in the A ring.
By watching a distant star as it passed behind Saturn’s outer rings, Cornell University astronomers on NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn have found the most direct evidence to date of patterns, called gravitational wakes, within the planet’s outer rings.
The patterns, thin, parallel striations like spokes on a pinwheel, have been theorized since the 1970s, but their small scale (just 100 meters -- 328 feet -- wide) makes them impossible to see even with the spacecraft’s high-resolution camera. The new evidence of their existence, says Phil Nicholson, Cornell professor of astronomy, gives scientists clues about how thick Saturn’s rings are and how their constituent bodies interact.
Nicholson presented his findings in September at the American Astronomical Society’s 37th Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Cambridge, England.
Lauren Gold | EurekAlert!
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