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Cassini finds "missing link" moonlet evidence in Saturn’s rings


Scientists with NASA’s Cassini mission have found evidence that a new class of small moonlets resides within Saturn’s rings. There may be as many as 10 million of these objects within one of Saturn’s rings alone. The research is published in Nature today (March 30th).

The moonlets’ existence could help answer the question of whether Saturn’s rings were formed through the break-up of a larger body or are the remnants of the disk of material from which Saturn and its moons formed.

"These moonlets are likely to be chunks of the ancient body whose break-up produced Saturn’s glorious rings," said Joseph Burns of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., a co-author of the report.

Careful analysis of high-resolution images taken by Cassini’s cameras revealed four faint, propeller-shaped double streaks. These features were found in an otherwise bland part of the mid-A Ring, a bright section in Saturn’s main rings. Cassini imaging scientists reporting in this week’s edition of the journal Nature believe the "propellers" provide the first direct observation of how moonlets of this size affect nearby particles. Cassini took the images as it slipped into Saturn orbit on July 1, 2004.

Previous measurements, including those made by NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s, have shown that Saturn’s rings contain mostly small water-ice particles ranging from less than 1 centimetre (one-half inch) across to the size of a small house. Scientists knew about two larger embedded ring moons such as 30-kilometer-wide (19-mile) Pan and 7-kilometer-wide (4-mile) Daphnis. The latest findings mark the first evidence of objects of about 100 meters (300 feet) in diameter.
From the number of moonlets spotted in the very small fraction of the A ring seen in the images, scientists estimated the total number of moonlets to be about 10 million.

"The discovery of these intermediate-sized bodies tells us that Pan and Daphnis are probably just the largest members of the ring population, rather than interlopers from somewhere else," said Matthew Tiscareno, an imaging team research associate at Cornell and lead author on the Nature paper.

Moons as large as Pan and Daphnis clear large gaps in the ring particles as they orbit Saturn. In contrast, smaller moonlets are not strong enough to clear out the ring, resulting in a partial gap centred on the moonlet and shaped like an airplane propeller. Such features created by moonlets were predicted by computer models, which give scientists confidence in their latest findings.

"We acquired this spectacular, one-of-a-kind set of images immediately after getting into orbit for the express purpose of seeing fine details in the rings that we had not seen previously," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader and co-author. "This will open up a new dimension in our exploration of Saturn’s rings and moons, their origin and evolution."

The detection of moonlets embedded in a ring of smaller particles may provide an opportunity to observe the processes by which planets form in disks of material around young stars, including our own early solar system. "The structures we observe with Cassini are strikingly similar to those seen in many numerical models of the early stages of planetary formation, even though the scales are dramatically different," said co-author Carl Murray, an imaging team member at Queen Mary, University of London. "Cassini is giving us a unique insight into the origin of planets."

Julia Maddock | alfa
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