Gravity is good for a lot of things. It brings objects closer together. Occasionally they crash into each other. But sometimes two objects get locked in a unique gravitational dance that pairs them together. That dance can be short-lived, or it can last for billions of years. In some cases the objects are large (i.e. planets and moons), but they can also be quite small.
These small dancing objects are called binary asteroids, and we know very little about them, despite making up approximately 15% of all asteroids in the solar system. That is until a newly greenlighted NASA mission, called Janus, will arrive at two different binary asteroids around 2026.
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.
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.
One of 62 moons discovered thus far orbiting giant Saturn, Janus is a 111-mile (179-km) -wide pockmarked potato composed of rock and ice rubble. The image above shows Janus as seen with Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on September 10, 2013, from a distance of 621,000 miles (1 million km), floating against the blackness of space.
Despite its apparent isolation in the image above, though, Janus isn’t alone. It shares its orbit around Saturn with its slightly smaller sister moon Epimetheus, and they regularly catch up to each other — and even switch places.
Janus and Epimetheus travel in nearly the same track, about 94,100 miles (151,500 km) out from Saturn. They occasionally pass each other, their gravity causing them to switch speeds and positions as they do; Janus goes faster and higher one time, slower and lower the next – but the two never come within more than about 6,200 miles of each other.
The two moons switch positions roughly every four years.
This scenario is referred to in astrophysics as a 1:1 resonance. Astronomers were initially confused when the moons were discovered in 1966 as it wasn’t known at the time that there were actually two separate moons in a single orbit. (This wasn’t confirmed until Voyager 1’s visit to Saturn in 1980.) It’s been suggested that Janus and Epimetheus will eventually come to orbit a single Lagrangian point around Saturn instead of trading places… in about another 20 million years.
The view above looks toward the Saturn-facing side of Janus. Covered in both dark and light colored material, Janus’ surface is thought to be coated with a layer of fine dust that slides down its steeper slopes, revealing the brighter ice beneath.
This picture is from a couple of years ago, but still worth the extra look. The Cassini spacecraft — busily circling Saturn and gathering data on the ringed planet and its moons — managed to grab five of Saturn’s 62 known moons in one shot. The European Space Agency highlighted the picture on its home page this week.
From left to right, you can see Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas and Rhea. Don’t be fooled by the rings near Rhea; those are actually Saturn’s rings. Rhea is just blocking the view of the planet from Saturn’s perspective during this picture portrait, which was taken on July 29, 2011.
The cornucopia of moons around Saturn is part of what makes that particular planet so interesting. Titan, the largest, is perhaps the most well-known because of its strange orange haze that intrigued astronomers when the twin Voyager spacecraft zoomed through the system in the 1980s. Cassini arrived in 2004 and revealed many more moons to science for the first time.
“The dozens of icy moons orbiting Saturn vary drastically in shape, size, surface age and origin. Some of these worlds have hard, rough surfaces, while others are porous bodies coated in a fine blanket of icy particles. All have greater or smaller numbers of craters, and many have ridges and valleys,” NASA wrote on a web page about Saturn’s moons.
“Some, like Dione and Tethys, show evidence of tectonic activity, where forces from within ripped apart their surfaces. Many, like Rhea and Tethys, appear to have formed billions of years ago, while others, like Janus and Epimetheus, could have originally been part of larger bodies that broke up. The study and comparison of these moons tells us a great deal about the history of the Saturn System and of the solar system at large.”
Over the past few days NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has performed flybys of several of Saturn’s moons. From the ostentatious Enceladus with its icy geysers to the rugged relief of Rhea, the sharp peaks of Dione’s frigid craters and even diminutive Janus, Cassini has once again returned a stack of stunning views from the Saturnian system, nearly 815 million miles from home.
Check out some of the images, and wish you were there!
And here’s a color-composite of Janus I assembled from three raw images taken in ultraviolet, green and infrared color channels. The results were tweaked to make it a little more true-color as what we might see with our limited human vision:
“Though we’ve been in orbit around Saturn for nearly 8 years now, we still continue to image these moons for mapping purposes and, in the case of Enceladus, to learn as much as we can about its famous jets and the subterranean, organic-rich, salty, liquid water chamber from which we believe they erupt.”
Check out this gorgeous new portrait of a Saturnian moon quintet taken by Earths’ emissary – NASA’s Cassini Orbiter. The moons are majestically poised along a backdrop of Saturn’s rings, fit for an artist’s canvas.
Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas and Rhea are nearly lined up (from left to right) in this view acquired by Cassini at a distance of approximately 684,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) from Rhea and 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers) from Enceladus.
The newly released image was taken by Cassini’s narrow angle camera on July 29, 2011. Image scale is about 4 miles (7 kilometers) per pixel on Rhea and 7 miles (11 kilometers) per pixel on Enceladus.
Cassini will stage a close flyby of Enceledus – Satarn’s geyser spewing moon – in about two weeks, swooping within 99 km
Moon Facts from JPL:
Janus (179 kilometers, or 111 miles across) is on the far left. Pandora (81 kilometers, or 50 miles across) orbits between the A ring and the thin F ring near the middle of the image. Brightly reflective Enceladus (504 kilometers, or 313 miles across) appears above the center of the image. Saturn’s second largest moon, Rhea (1,528 kilometers, or 949 miles across), is bisected by the right edge of the image. The smaller moon Mimas (396 kilometers, or 246 miles across) can be seen beyond Rhea also on the right side of the image.
This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ring plane. Rhea is closest to Cassini here. The rings are beyond Rhea and Mimas. Enceladus is beyond the rings.
The simple graphic below shows dozens of Saturn’s moons – not to scale. So far 62 have been discovered and 53 have been officially named.
Oh, wow — what a gorgeous image! Just the latest from our resident artist in space, the Cassini spacecraft. Rhea, saturn’s second largest moon sits in front of the rings, joined by two smaller moons in the background. Rhea (1528 kilometers, 949 miles across) is in the center foreground. Janus (179 kilometers, 111 miles across) can be seen beyond the rings on the right of the image. Prometheus (86 kilometers, 53 miles across) is visible orbiting between the main rings and the thin F ring on the left of the image. Lit terrain seen on Rhea is on the area between that moon’s trailing hemisphere and anti-Saturn side. This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ringplane.
If you like contrast images, there’s a great one below.
This image is a beautiful contrast between dark and light. Atlas can be seen just above the center of this Cassini spacecraft image as the moon orbits in the Roche Division between Saturn’s A ring and thin F ring.
The Cassini mission keeps churning out the hits, and here’s a collection of some of the latest stunning images released by the CICLOPS (Cassini Imaging for Central Operations) team. Above, the small moon Janus is almost hidden between the planet’s rings and the larger moon Rhea. The northern part of Janus can be seen peeking above the rings in this image of a “mutual event” where Janus (179 kilometers, 111 miles across) moved past Rhea (1,528 kilometers, 949 miles across). Mutual event observations such as this one, in which one moon passes close to or in front of another, help scientists refine their understanding of the orbits of Saturn’s moons. Click here to see a movie of the event.
Grab your 3-D glasses for this one! This 3-D view is a close-up of Saturn’s potato-shaped moon Prometheus, showing the moon’s leading hemisphere. The image was created by combining two different black and white images that were taken from slightly different viewing angles. The images are combined so that the viewer’s left and right eye, respectively and separately, see a left and right image of the black and white stereo pair when viewed through red-blue glasses.
At first glance, you might think this scene simply shows a bright chunk of Saturn, along with a crescent of the moon Enceladus at top right. But a closer look at the center of the image reveals a dramatic surprise: plumes of water ice spew out from the famed fractures known as “tiger stripes” near the south pole of the moon. And one other surprise: Although it may appear that Enceladus (504 kilometers, 313 miles across) is in the background here, the moon actually is closer to the spacecraft than Saturn is. This view looks most directly toward the side of Enceladus that faces away from Saturn. North on Enceladus is up and rotated 1 degree to the left.