New Visualization Of Waves In Saturn’s Rings Puts You In The Keeler Gap

Fans of astronomy are no doubt familiar with the work of Kevin Gill. In the past, he has brought us visualizations of what the Earth would look like if it had a system of rings, what a “Living Mars” would look like – i.e. if it was covered in oceans and lush vegetation – and an artistic rendition of the places we’ve been in our Solar System.

In his latest work, which once again merges the artistic and astronomical, Gill has created a series of images that show Saturn’s moon of Daphnis, and the effect it has on Saturn’s Keeler Gap. Through these images – titled “Daphnis in the Keeler Gap” and “Daphnis and Waves Along the Keeler Gap” – we get to see an artistic rendition of how one of Saturn’s moons interacts with its beautiful ring system.

As one of Saturn’s smallest moons – measuring just 8 km (~5 mi) in diameter – the existence of Daphnis had been previously inferred by astronomers based on the gravitational ripples that were observed on the outer edge of the Keeler Gap. This 42 km (26 mi) wide gap, which lies in Saturn’s A Ring and is approximately 250 km from the its outer edge, is kept clear by Daphnis’ orbit around the planet.

Gill's rendition of a side-angled look at Saturn's moon of Daphnis moving through the Keeler Gap. Credit: Kevin GIll/Flickr
Gill’s rendition of a low-angled look at Saturn’s moon of Daphnis moving through the Keeler Gap. Credit: Kevin GIll/

In 2005, the Cassini space probe finally confirmed the existence of this tiny moon. After analyzing images provided by the probe, the Cassini Imaging Science Team concluded that Daphnis’ path and orbit induce a wavy pattern in the edge of the gap. These waves reach a distance of 1.5 km (0.93 mi) above the ring, due to Daphnis being slightly inclined to the ring’s plane.

However, all the images taken by Cassini showed this effect from a great distance. In order to help people appreciate what it must look like close-up, Gill decided to create the visuals you see here. From his images, the passage of Daphnis is shown to give the A Ring a rippled, wavy appearance. In addition, one can see how Daphnis is inclined slightly above the plane of the A Ring, causing the waves to reach upward.

As Kevin Gill told Universe Today via email, these images were the largely inspired by the most recent images of Saturn’s rings that were provided by Cassini space probe, which returned to an equatorial orbit a few months ago after spending two years in high-inclination orbits:

“These are inspired by a general interest in the moon-ring interactions and some recent Cassini views of Daphnis on the 15th (shown below). This is one of the many aspects of the Saturn system that I imagine would be absolutely breathtaking if you could see it in person and ended up being rather simple to model in Maya.”

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Saturn’s Little Wavemaking Moon

Captured on January 15, this narrow-angle Cassini image shows an outer portion of Saturn’s A ring on the left and the ropy F ring crossing on the right. The thin black line near the A ring’s bright edge is the Keeler Gap, a 22-mile-wide space cleared by the passage of Daphnis, a shepherd moon barely 5 miles (about 7.5 km) across. As it travels around Saturn within the gap its gravity perturbs the fine icy particles within the rings, sending up rippling waves both before and behind it — visible here near the upper center.

From Cassini’s distance of 870,000 miles (1.4 million km) Daphnis itself is just barely visible as a single pixel within the Gap — can you see it? If not, click below…

There it is:

Highlighting Daphnis inside the Keeler Gap
Highlighting Daphnis inside the Keeler Gap

While lacking the murky mystery of Titan’s atmosphere, Enceladus’ dramatic jets and the tortured and cratered surfaces found on Dione, Rhea, Mimas and many of Saturn’s larger icy moons, little Daphnis has always fascinated me because of the scalloped waves it kicks up within Saturn’s rings. Eventually these waves settle back down, but at their highest they can extend a mile or two above and below the ring plane!

Daphnis' wake casts peaked shadows on the rings
Daphnis’ wake casts peaked shadows on the rings

This effect was most pronounced during Saturn’s spring equinox in August 2009 when sunlight was striking the rings edge-on, creating strong shadows from any areas of relief.

Imagine the impressive view you’d have if you were nearby, positioned just above the rings as Daphnis approached and hurtled past, the rings rising up in mile-high peaks from the moon’s gravity before smoothing out again. Incredible!

Daphnis seen by Cassini in June 2010 (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Daphnis seen by Cassini in June 2010 (NASA/JPL/SSI)

And I’m not the only one to imagine such a scene either — apparently artist Erik Svensson is also intrigued by Daphnis, enough to have been inspired to create the image below. How very cool!

Future explorers watch Daphnis speed past at the edge of Saturn's A ring (© Erik Svennson, all rights reserved. Used with permission.)
Future explorers watch Daphnis speed past at the edge of Saturn’s A ring (© Erik Svennson, all rights reserved. Used with permission.)

Like its larger shepherd moon sister Prometheus, Daphnis may be little but still has a big effect on the icy stuff that makes up Saturn’s iconic rings.

And for lots more views of Daphnis click here (but watch out, it may just become your favorite moon too!)

Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Small Moon Makes Big Waves

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Saturn’s moon Daphnis is only 8 kilometers wide, but it has a fairly substantial effect on the A ring, making waves on the ring’s edge. According to Carolyn Porco on Twitter, this is the closest look yet at this mini, moving moon. Daphnis resides in the Keeler Gap, which is about 42 km wide, but the moon’s eccentric orbit causes its distance from Saturn to vary by almost 9 km, and its inclination causes it to move up and down by about 17 km. That may not sound like much, but within a small gap, this variability causes the waves seen in the edges of the gap. We’ve only known about Daphnis’ existence since 2005, one of the many discoveries made by the Cassini spacecraft, and this is the first image where Daphnis is more than just a little dot. Click on the image to get a closer look.

This image is hot off the presses, as it was taken on July 5, 2010, and sent to Earth just yesterday (July 6). See below for a great new look at Saturn’s ring.


New raw image of Saturn's rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Click the image for a larger version, and prepare to be wowed!

Source: CICLOPS, with a hat tip to Stu Atkinson!