Saturn's rings are mighty weird

More Cassini holiday snaps

The Cassini imaging team has released a slew of previously unseen pictures from the Saturn ring and moon system, to coincide with the 37th annual meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society held in Cambridge.

The scientists have identified new features in the rings, including some that are slightly mysterious. For instance, in the image below, you can make out small clumps in the ring structure. But what are they?

Pictures of the strange clumps in Saturn's F ring

Scientists have long speculated that small moons, hidden among the many strands of the F-ring could be responsible for the odd structure of the region. The question is, are these clumps just disturbances in the ring structure caused by interactions with larger moons nearby such as Prometheus, or are they moons in their own right?

The imaging team explains that working out the answer is tricky, precisely because perturbations from nearby moons make the orbits in the region so complicated. This makes it hard to say whether sightings are the same object seen many times, or many, short-lived objects caught on camera during their brief existence.

Other images are less mysterious, but just as interesting. Recent snaps of the D-ring have been compared with older images from the Voyager missions. The results reveal that the structure of the ring has changed over time. In particular, one strand of the ring, known as D72, which was the brightest feature in the D-ring a quarter of a century ago has become much dimmer, and has moved inwards by about 200km.

Other images and animations show how moons interact with the rings, how the rings could be shaped, and the strange spiral path that one ring takes around the planet. Have a look at the Ciclops (Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations) page here for more details. ®

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