Bumper Car Moonlets Crash and Crumble in Saturn’s F Ring

Nothing stands still. Everything evolves. So why shouldn’t Saturn’s kookie, clumpy F ring put on a new face from time to time? 

A recent NASA-funded study compared the F ring’s appearance in six years of observations by the Cassini mission to its appearance during the Saturn flybys of NASA’s Voyager mission, 30 years earlier.

Example of a kink in part of Saturn's F ring. While the ring is held together by the shephard moons Prometheus and Pandora, which orbit just inside and  outside the ring, embedded moonlets are believed responsible for the kinks and clumps. Credit: NASA
A kink in part of Saturn’s F ring. While the ring is held together by the shepherd moons Prometheus and Pandora, which orbit just inside and outside the ring, embedded moonlets are believed responsible for the kinks and clumps. The rings is several hundred kilometers wide. Credit: NASA

While the F ring has always displayed clumps of icy matter, the study team found that the number of bright clumps has nose-dived since the Voyager space probes saw them routinely during their brief flybys 30 years ago. Cassini spied only two of the features during a six-year period.

Scientists have long suspected that moonlets up to 3 miles (5 km) wide hiding in the F ring are responsible for its uneven texture. Kinks and knots appear and disappear within months compared to the years of observation needed changes in many of the other rings.

Saturn's F ring is extremely narrow compared to the historic A, B and C rings. It measure just a few hundred kilometers across. Credit: NASA/Cassini
Saturn’s F ring is extremely narrow compared to the historic A, B and C rings. It measures just a few hundred kilometers across. Credit: NASA/Cassini

“Saturn’s F ring looks fundamentally different from the time of Voyager to the Cassini era,” said Robert French of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who led the study along with SETI Principal Investigator Mark Showalter. “It makes for an irresistible mystery for us to investigate.”

A 2007 artist impression of the aggregates of icy particles that form the 'solid' portions of Saturn's rings. These elongated clumps are continually forming and dispersing. The largest particles are a few metres across.They clump together to form elongated, curved aggregates, continually forming and dispersing. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Colorado
A 2007 artist impression of small boulder-like chunks of ice that comprise Saturn’s rings. The largest are about 10-12 feet across.They clump together to form elongated, curved aggregates, continually forming and dispersing. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Colorado

Because the moonlets lie close to the ring and cross through it every orbit, the research team hypothesizes that the clumps are created when they crash into and pulverize smaller ring particles during each pass. They suspect that the decline in the number of exceptionally bright kinks and the clumps echoes a decline in the number of moonlets available to do the job.

So what happened between Voyager and Cassini? Blame it on Prometheus. The F ring circles Saturn at a delicate point called the Roche Limit. Any moons orbiting closer than the limit would be torn apart by Saturn’s gravitational force.

A possible culprit! Prometheus measures 74 miles (119 km) across and orbits the inner edge of Saturn's F ring. Credit: NASA
The culprit? Prometheus measures 74 miles (119 km) across and orbits the inner edge of Saturn’s F ring. Credit: NASA

“Material at this distance from Saturn can’t decide whether it wants to remain as a ring or coalesce to form a moon,” said French.  “Prometheus orbits just inside the F ring, and adds to the pandemonium by stirring up the ring particles, sometimes leading to the creation of moonlets, and sometimes leading to their destruction.”

Every 17 years the orbit of Prometheus aligns with the orbit of the F ring in a way that enhances its gravitational influence. The researchers think the alignment spurs the creation of lots of extra moonlets which then go crashing into the ring, creating bright clumps of material as they smash themselves to bits against other ring material.

Sounds like a terrifying version of carnival bumper cars. In this scenario, the number of moonlets would gradually drop off until another favorable Prometheus alignment.

The Voyagers encounters with Saturn occurred a few years after the 1975 alignment between Prometheus and the F ring, and Cassini was present for the 2009 alignment. Assuming Prometheus has been “working” to build new moons since 2009, we should see the F ring light up once again with bright clumps in the next couple years.

Cassini will be watching.

Saturn’s Ring Shows A Twist In Cassini’s Glimpse Of Planet

What’s up with this distortion? This picture from the Cassini spacecraft shows some kind of twist happening in the F ring of Saturn. Scientists in fact have seen other strange shapes in this delicate ring, indicating that something is disturbing it from time to time.

“Saturn’s F ring often appears to do things other rings don’t. In this Cassini spacecraft image, a strand of ring appears to separate from the core of the ring as if pulled apart by mysterious forces. Some ring scientists believe that this feature may be due to repeated collisions between the F ring and a single small object,” NASA stated this month.

There’s a debate in the scientific community about where the rings arose in the first place. “It’s been going back and forth for ages and it still goes back and forth. Are they old, or have they been there a long period of time? Are they new? I don’t know what to think, to be quite honest. I’m not being wishy-washy, I just don’t know what to think anymore,” Kevin Grazier, a planetary scientist with the Cassini mission for over 15 years, told Universe Today in December.

While this picture dates from October, you can check out Cassini images as they come in to NASA’s raw image database. Even in unprocessed form, the planet and its rings look beautiful — as you can clearly see in samples below.

The bulk of Saturn looms to the side of this shot of Saturn's rings taken in February 2014 by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The bulk of Saturn looms to the side of this shot of Saturn’s rings taken in February 2014 by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The variety of Saturn's rings is visible in this raw shot from the Cassini spacecraft taken in February 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The variety of Saturn’s rings is visible in this raw shot from the Cassini spacecraft taken in February 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Although Saturn's rings look solid and substantial in images such as this, they are made up of many tiny, icy objects collecting as thin as 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) deep.  Image taken by the Cassini spacecraft in February 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Although Saturn’s rings look solid and substantial in images such as this, they are made up of many tiny, icy objects collecting as thin as 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) deep. Image taken by the Cassini spacecraft in February 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A “Mini Jet” Juts from Saturn’s F Ring

We all know that Saturn’s moon Enceladus has a whole arsenal of geysers jetting a constant spray of ice out into orbit (and if you didn’t know, learn about it here) but Enceladus isn’t the only place in the Saturnian system where jets can be found — there are some miniature versions hiding out in the thin F ring as well!

Watch the 50-mile-wide Prometheus dip into the F ring (CLICK TO PLAY) NASA/JPL/SSI. Animation by J. Major.
Watch the 50-mile-wide Prometheus dip into the F ring (CLICK TO PLAY) NASA/JPL/SSI. Animation by J. Major.

The image above, captured by the Cassini spacecraft on June 20, 2013, shows a segment of the thin, ropy F ring that encircles Saturn just beyond the A ring (visible at upper right). The bright barb near the center is what scientists call a mini jet, thought to be caused by small objects getting dragged through the ring material as a result of repeated passings by the shepherd moon Prometheus.

Coincidentally, it’s gravitational perturbations by Prometheus that help form the objects — half-mile-wide snowball-like clusters of icy ring particles — in the first place.

Unlike the dramatic jets on Enceladus, which are powered by tidal stresses that flex the moon’s crust, these mini jets are much more subtle and occur at the casual rate of 4 mph (2 meters/second)… about the speed of a brisk walk.

The reflective jets themselves can be anywhere from 25 to 112 miles (40 to 180 kilometers) long.

See more images of mini jets — also called “classic trails” — below:

Various images of mini jets captured by Cassini from 2005 to 2008.
Various images of mini jets captured by Cassini from 2005 to 2008.

Over 500 of these features have been imaged by Cassini since 2005. Read more about mini jets here.

(And don’t worry, Enceladus… these little jets are interesting but they have nothing on you!)

Source: Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for OPerationS (CICLOPS)

Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/QMUL. 

A Ghostly “Ladder” in Saturn’s F Ring

Saturn’s F ring is certainly a curious structure. Orbiting the giant planet 82,000 kilometers above its equatorial cloud tops, the F ring is a ropy, twisted belt of bright ice particles anywhere from 30-500 km wide. It can appear as a solid band or a series of braided cords surrounded by a misty haze, and often exhibits clumps and streamers created by the gravitational influence of embedded moonlets or passing shepherd moons.

In the picture above, acquired by the Cassini spacecraft on Feb. 13, 2013 and released on May 27, we see a section of the F ring separated into long ropes and spanned by connecting bands of bright material — the “ladder” structure suggested in the title.

Scientists believe that interactions between the F ring and the moons Prometheus and Pandora cause the dynamic structure of the F ring. (Watch an animation of the F ring and shepherd moons here.)

Made of particles of water ice finer than cigarette smoke, the F ring orbits Saturn beyond the outer edge of the A ring across the expanse of the 2,600-km-wide Roche Division. In these images, Saturn and the main ring systems are off frame to the left.

Detail of ladder structure in the F ring
Detail of ladder structure in the F ring

This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 32 degrees below the ringplane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera (NAC).

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 426,000 miles (686,000 kilometers) from Saturn and at a phase angle of 162 degrees. Image scale is 2 miles (4 kilometers) per pixel.

Source: NASA/JPL’s Cassini mission site.

 

Saturn’s Fluctuating F Ring

Bright clumps of material spotted within Saturn’s ropy F ring (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Released today, this image acquired by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows some interesting structures forming within Saturn’s thinnest but most dynamic ring.

Of Saturn’s countless ring structures the F ring may very well be the most dynamic, if not the most fascinating. Orbiting Saturn just outside the edge of the A ring at a distance of 140,000 km (87,000 miles), the F ring is a hazy, ropy band of fine ice particles that shift, twist and occasionally gather into bright clumps… only to drift apart once more.

The F ring can range in width from 30 to 500 km (20-500 miles), depending on what’s going on in and outside of it.

The image above, originally captured by Cassini on June 28 and released today by the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS), shows a particularly bright clump of material at the outer edge of the F ring, as well as some finer structures and streamers forming within the inner bands. Due to the lighting geometry its thought that the clumps are mostly composed of dusty material.

Detail of the ghostly F ring structures (NASA/JPL/SSI)

The features seen here are likely due to the ring’s interactions with passing shepherd moons — such as the 148-km-wide Prometheus — or with small moonlets embedded within the ring itself. Mostly made of fine particles of dust and ice smaller than those found in smoke, the material orbiting within the F ring is extremely susceptible to external gravitational influences.

Original image scale is 4 km (3 miles) per pixel.

See more images from the entire Cassini mission on the CICLOPS site here (and for a look at more interesting ring dynamics check out these recent Cassini images of my personal favorite moon, Daphnis.)

 

Glittering ‘Mini-Jets’ Found in Saturn’s Curious F-Ring

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New images from the Cassini spacecraft have revealed kilometer-sized objects piercing through parts of Saturn’s F ring, leaving glittering trails behind them. These trails in the rings, which scientists are calling “mini-jets,” provide insight into the curious behavior of the F ring, which Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco called “Saturn’s most beguiling phenomena.” With new detailed images, Cassini reveals the intricate workings of the F ring and hordes of tiny moonlet companions creating the trails.

“I think the F ring is Saturn’s weirdest ring, and these latest Cassini results go to show how the F ring is even more dynamic than we ever thought,” said Carl Murray, a Cassini imaging team member from Queen Mary University of London, England. “These findings show us that the F ring region is like a bustling zoo of objects from a half mile [kilometer] in size to moons like Prometheus a hundred miles [kilometers] in size, creating a spectacular show.”

Images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft have revealed half-mile-sized (kilometer-sized) objects punching through parts of Saturn's F ring, leaving glittering trails behind them. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Scientists have known that relatively large objects like Prometheus (as long as 92 miles, or 148 kilometers, across) can create channels, ripples and snowballs in the F ring. But scientists didn’t know what happened to these snowballs after they were created, Murray said. Some were surely broken up by collisions or tidal forces in their orbit around Saturn, but now scientists have evidence that some of the smaller ones survive, and their differing orbits mean they go on to strike through the F ring on their own.

This image obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft around the time it went into orbit around Saturn in 2004 shows a short trail of icy particles dragged out from Saturn's F ring. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

These small objects appear to collide with the F ring at gentle speeds – something on the order of about 4 mph (2 meters per second). The collisions drag glittering ice particles out of the F ring with them, leaving a trail typically 20 to 110 miles (40 to 180 kilometers) long. Murray’s group happened to see a tiny trail in an image from Jan. 30, 2009 and tracked it over eight hours. The long footage confirmed the small object originated in the F ring, so they went back through the Cassini image catalog to see if the phenomenon was frequent.

The constant change in Saturn's wavy, wiggly F ring is on display in this set of images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The images show a view looking directly down onto the ring with the planet removed from the center. The radial distance from the center of the F ring has been exaggerated by a factor of 140 to make the wiggles and other radial structures more visible. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“The F ring has a circumference of 550,000 miles [881,000 kilometers], and these mini-jets are so tiny they took quite a bit of time and serendipity to find,” said Nick Attree, a Cassini imaging associate at Queen Mary. “We combed through 20,000 images and were delighted to find 500 examples of these rogues during just the seven years Cassini has been at Saturn.”

In some cases, the objects traveled in packs, creating mini-jets that looked quite exotic, like the barb of a harpoon. Other new images show grand views of the entire F ring, showing the swirls and eddies that ripple around the ring from all the different kinds of objects moving through and around it.

“Beyond just showing us the strange beauty of the F ring, Cassini’s studies of this ring help us understand the activity that occurs when solar systems evolve out of dusty disks that are similar to, but obviously much grander than, the disk we see around Saturn,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We can’t wait to see what else Cassini will show us in Saturn’s rings.”

See more images and animations at the CICLOPS website.

Source: JPL