Cassini Captures Saturn’s Darkest Rings

The closest to the planet itself, the hazy arcs of Saturn’s D ring may lack the reflective brilliance and sharply-defined edges of the other main rings, but they nevertheless possess their own ethereal beauty and mysteries. Here, the Cassini spacecraft has managed to capture the soft bands of the D ring in a long-exposure image acquired on April 2, 2013 — so long an exposure, in fact, that background stars seen through the rings appear as long vertical streaks, a testament to the ring’s dimness as well as the spacecraft’s continuing movement.

Beginning 8,768 km (5,448 miles) above the tops of Saturn’s clouds, the D ring is the innermost and thinnest segment of Saturn’s main ring system. Nearly transparent, the D ring extends about 7,500 km (4,660 miles) before transitioning to the considerably brighter C ring, which is over twice as wide.

The innermost portion of the C ring can be seen above along the left side. Saturn’s shadow blankets the lower right corner.

The cause of the alternating light-and-dark bands observed within the D ring isn’t yet known, but they may be the result of an impact by a comet or large meteor that set up recurring waves of material.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 510,000 kilometers (317,000 miles) from Saturn and at a phase angle of 147 degrees. Image scale is 2 miles (3 kilometers) per pixel.

Source: NASA/JPL Cassini mission site.