Is Saturn Making a New Moon?

Congratulations! It’s a baby… moon? A bright clump spotted orbiting Saturn at the outermost edge of its A ring may be a brand new moon in the process of being born, according to research recently published in the journal Icarus.

“We have not seen anything like this before,” said Carl Murray of Queen Mary University in London, lead author of the paper. “We may be looking at the act of birth, where this object is just leaving the rings and heading off to be a moon in its own right.”

In images acquired with Cassini’s narrow-angle camera in 2013, a 1,200-kilometer-long, 10-kilometer-wide arc of icy material was observed traveling along the edge of the A ring. The arc is thought to be the result of gravitational perturbations caused by an as-yet unseen embedded object about a kilometer wide — possibly a miniature moon in the process of formation.

Cassini image of the 179-km-wide Janus from April 2010. Janus' gravity may have helped spur the formation of Peggy. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
Cassini image of 179-km-wide Janus from April 2010. Janus’ gravity may have helped spur the formation of Peggy. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

The half-mile-wide object has been unofficially named “Peggy,” after lead author Murray’s mother-in-law (whose 80th birthday it was on the day he was studying the Cassini NAC images.) Murray first announced the findings on Dec. 10, 2013 at the AGU 13 meeting in San Francisco.

According to the team’s paper, Peggy’s effects on the A ring has been visible to Cassini since May 2012.

Eventually Peggy may coalesce into a slightly larger moon and move outward, establishing its own orbital path around Saturn. This is how many of Saturn’s other moons are thought to have formed much further back in the planet’s history. Now, its rings having been depleted of moon-stuff, can only create tiny objects like Peggy.

“Witnessing the possible birth of a tiny moon is an exciting, unexpected event.”
– Linda Spilker, Cassini Project Scientist at JPL

While it is possible that the bright perturbation is the result of an object’s breakup rather than formation, researchers are still looking forward to finding out more about its evolution.

Read more on the NASA/JPL news release here.

To find out more about the Cassini mission visit saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and www.nasa.gov/cassini. The Cassini imaging team’s website is at ciclops.org.

Shaking Up Theories Of Earth’s Formation

[/caption]

Researchers from The Australian National University are suggesting that Earth didn’t form as previously thought, shaking up some long-standing hypotheses of our planet’s origins right down to the core — literally.

Ian Campbell and Hugh O’Neill, both professors at ANU’s Research School for Earth Sciences, have challenged the concept that Earth formed from the same material as the Sun — and thus has a “chondritic” composition — an idea that has been assumed accurate by planetary scientists for quite some time.

 

Chondrite meteorites are composed of spherical chondrules, which formed in the solar nebula before the asteroids. (NASA)

Chondrites are meteorites that were formed from the solar nebula that surrounded the Sun over 4.6 billion years ago. They are valuable to scientists because of their direct relationship with the early Solar System and the primordial material they contain.

“For decades it has been assumed that the Earth had the same composition as the Sun, as long the most volatile elements like hydrogen are excluded,” O’Neill said. “This theory is based on the idea that everything in the solar system in general has the same composition. Since the Sun comprises 99 per cent of the solar system, this composition is essentially that of the Sun.”

Instead, they propose that our planet was formed through the collision of larger planet-sized bodies, bodies that had already grown massive enough themselves to develop an outer shell.

This scenario is supported by over 20 years of research by Campbell on columns of hot rock that rise from Earth’s core, called mantle plumes. Campbell discovered no evidence for “hidden reservoirs” of heat-producing elements such as uranium and thorium that had been assumed to exist, had Earth actually formed from chondritic material.

“Mantle plumes simply don’t release enough heat for these reservoirs to exist. As a consequence the Earth simply does not have the same composition as chondrites or the Sun,” Campbell said.

The outer shell of early Earth, containing heat-producing elements obtained from the impacting smaller planets, would have been eroded away by all the collisions.

“This produced an Earth that has fewer heat producing elements than chondritic meteorites, which explains why the Earth doesn’t have the same chemical composition,” O’Neill said.

The team’s paper has been published in the journal Nature. Read the press release from The Australian National University here.