Thanks to a special play of sunlight and shadow as Saturn continues its march towards its August 11 equinox, recent images captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft are revealing new three-dimensional objects and structures in the planet’s otherwise flat rings.
The Cassini spacecraft captured this image of a small object in the outer portion of Saturn's B ring casting a shadow on the rings as Saturn approaches its August 2009 equinox.
This new moonlet, situated about 300 miles (480 kilometers), inward from the outer edge of the B ring, was found by detection of its shadow which stretches 25 miles, or 41 kilometers, across the rings. The shadow length implies the moonlet is protruding about 660 feet, or 200 meters, above the ring plane. If the moonlet is orbiting in the same plane as the ring material surrounding it, which is likely, it must be about 1,300 feet, or 400 meters, across.
This object is not attended by a propeller feature, unlike the band of moonlets discovered in Saturn's A ring earlier by Cassini. The A ring moonlets, which have not been directly imaged, were found because of the propeller-like narrow gaps on either side of them that they create as they orbit within the rings. The lack of a propeller feature surrounding the new moonlet is likely because the B ring is dense, and the ring material in a dense ring would be expected to fill in any gaps around the moonlet more quickly than in a less dense region like the mid-A ring. Also, it may simply be harder in the first place for a moonlet to create propeller-like gaps in a dense ring.
The search for three-dimensional structures in Saturn's rings has been a major goal of the imaging team during Cassini's "Equinox Mission," the two-year period containing exact equinox -- that moment when the sun is seen directly overhead at noon at the planet's equator. This novel illumination geometry, which occurs every half-Saturn-year, or about 15 Earth years, lowers the sun's angle to the ring plane and causes out-of-plane structures to cast long shadows across the rings' broad expanse, making them easy to detect.
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