Saturn’s Rings Coats Tiny Moons

Saturn’s Rings Coats Tiny Moons

Saturn's Rings Coat Tiny Moons
Image Credits: NASA

The latest analysis of the data, collected by the Cassini spacecraft of NASA, revealed five tiny moons near the rings of Saturn.

Saturn is the 2nd largest planet in our Solar System. It is almost entirely made of gas and is 9 times greater in radius than Earth. While its density is one-eighth of our planet, it is a whopping 95 times bigger in size. It is believed that Saturn has a solid iron-nickel core. Until now, a total of 62 moons have been discovered for this gas giant and guess what, we have found some new entrants. The five tiny moons observed near the rings are Atlas, Epimetheus, Pandora, Daphnis, and Pan. Scientists found that all of these moons are covered with rocks and dust (from rings) and small ice particles (from Enceladus).

Structure of Tiny Moons

Cassini’s mission ended in 2017 when it ran low on fuel. Scientists deliberately crashed the spacecraft into the gas giant rather than destroying it on any of the moons because most of them are potential candidates for signs of life. The data gathered by Cassini is still being used for researches such as this one. The surface of these tiny moons seems to be porous suggesting that they were formed layer by layer over a period of time. Researchers believe dust and ice layer accumulated on small pieces of a larger body which caused the moons to have rather odd shapes (shaped like blobs). Bonnie Buratti, a Researcher at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, referred to the shapes of these moons and said,

“We found these moons are scooping up particles of ice and dust from the rings to form the little skirts around their equators.  A denser body would be more ball-shaped because gravity would pull the material in.”

Learning when and how Saturn’s moons formed can teach astronomers more about the mechanisms at work in moon creation. This research offers hints at processes that are likely happening all over the universe, including around exoplanets we’re only now beginning to discover.

Location and Resulting Features

Two of these tiny moons are quite close to Saturn and the gas giant’s influence on them can be seen clearly. Both, Daphnis and Pan are heavily altered as they lie in the proximity of the rings. The other moons (Atlas, Epimetheus, and Pandora) are a bit further away from the rings but are quite close to Enceladus, the icy moon of Saturn. For this reason, all three of these moons are covered in a layer of icy material. Linda Spilker, the Project Scientist of Cassini Mission, talked about that in the following words:

“Perhaps this process is going on throughout the rings, and the largest ring particles are also accreting ring material around them. Detailed views of these tiny ring moons may tell us more about the behavior of the ring particles themselves.”

Buratti added even more weight to her point of view by mentioning that the daring, close flybys of these odd little moons let us peer into how they interact with Saturn’s rings. We’re seeing more evidence of how extremely active and dynamic the Saturn ring and moon system is. Do any of the moons of the ice giant planets Uranus and Neptune interact with their thinner rings to form features similar to those on Saturn’s ring moons? These are questions to be answered by future missions.

Spectral Map and Composition

Using Cassini’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS), researchers were able to determine the composition of all five moons. This was the first time Cassini was able to approach the innermost moon (Pan) and create a spectral map. By analyzing the map, detailed observations about its composition were made. According to the reports, the moons inside the ring are covered by a reddish material, the same color as the innermost rings. The exact composition of this reddish material is still unknown. However, it is very likely that it is made up of iron and some other elements.

The formation of these moons is still a mystery that needs to be resolved. Astronomers believe that further investigations will be crucial in this regard as they hope to find some useful clues through these ventures. The discovery of ring material on these tiny moons will help researchers to enhance their understanding of our solar system. Matthew Tiscareno, a representative of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, acknowledged the artistic nature of Enceladus by saying,

“Neither of these moons is actually orbiting in a cloud of ring material right now, so it wasn’t necessarily obvious that the equatorial ridges come from accreted ring material. Enceladus is the cosmic graffiti artist of the solar system. The closer you are, the more your colors look like Enceladus.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *