Moonshadows on Saturn’s rings are foretelling the planet’s equinox, when the sun will be exactly aligned with the planet’s equator and rings — and then will shift north from the southern hemisphere, kickstarting northern spring.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured, for the first time, the tell-tale moonshadows – sort of like groundhogs on Earth.
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The image above is a still from a movie, from Cassini’s hour-long observation of the shadow of the small moon Epimetheus.
Like Earth and most of the other planets, Saturn’s spin axis is tilted relative to its motion around the sun. So the sun, seen from Saturn, cycles from the southern hemisphere to the north and back again. A full sweep of seasonal changes on Saturn and its rings and moons takes a Saturnian year, equal to 29.5 Earth years. Thus, about every 15 Earth years, or half-Saturn-year, the sun passes through the plane containing the planet’s rings.
During these times, the shadows of the planet’s rings fall in the equatorial region on the planet. And the shadows of Saturn’s moons external to the rings, especially those whose orbits are inclined with respect to the equator, begin to intersect the planet’s rings. When this occurs, the equinox period has essentially begun, and any vertical protuberances within the rings, including small embedded moons and narrow vertical warps in the rings, will also cast shadows on the rings. At exactly the moment of equinox, the shadows of the rings on the planet will be confined to a thin line around Saturn’s equator and the rings themselves will go dark, being illuminated only on their edge. The next equinox on Saturn, when the sun will pass from south to north, is Aug. 11, 2009.
Because of these unique illumination circumstances, Cassini imaging scientists have been eager to observe the planet and its rings around the time of equinox. Cassini’s first extended mission, which began on July 1, 2008, was intended to gather observations during this time. Hence its name: Cassini Equinox Mission.
More than just pretty pictures, the observations could reveal any deviations across the rings from a perfectly flat wafer-like disk. Saturn’s ring system is wide, spanning hundreds of thousands of miles or kilometers. But the main inner rings (called A, B and C) are perhaps only 10 meters (30 feet) thick, and they are sometimes obscured from view inside thicker outer rings.
“We hope that such images will help us measure any vertical warping in the A and B rings,” said John Weiss, an imaging team associate from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Because we know how big the moons are, and where they are in their orbits around Saturn when they cast these shadows, we have all the information we need to infer any substantial vertical structure that might be present.”
On Jan. 8, Epimetheus, a small moon 113 kilometers (70 miles) across, was the first moon observed casting a shadow onto the outer edge of the A ring. Next Pan, 30 kilometers (20 miles) across and orbiting within the rings, was caught casting a shadow on the A ring on Feb. 12. Eventually, more moons will cast shadows on the rings and all shadows will grow longer as exact equinox approaches.
Source: Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS)