NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has provided the first direct evidence of small meteoroids breaking into streams of rubble and crashing into Saturn’s rings.
These observations make Saturn’s rings the only location besides Earth, the moon and Jupiter where scientists and amateur astronomers have been able to observe impacts as they occur. Studying the impact rate of meteoroids from outside the Saturnian system helps scientists understand how different planet systems in our solar system formed.
As the authors put it, “the origin and long-term evolution of Saturn’s rings is still an unsolved problem.” While astronomers still seek answers to many of the questions about Saturn’s ring system, the Cassini spacecraft has been a tremendous help in approaching the answers. In a recently released book titled “Saturn from Cassini-Huygen”, one chapter is devoted to to Saturn’s rings, and is now available online here. So take a look if you ever wondered where Saturn got its rings.
In a paper to be published in the Astronomical Journal, available online now here, astronomers detail the evidence for the structure (they call it the architecture) of the famed Cassini Division within the rings of Saturn. This gap in the rings of Saturn was named for the Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini. Initially thought to be rather void of anything of interest, the latest imagery and spectrometry from the Cassini spacecraft has led astronomers using the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer onboard the Cassini spacecraft to the discovery of “the radial position of the edges of all of these gaps and ringlets.”
In a press release today, available online here, the NASA Cassini Mission imaging team released new photographs of the rings of Saturn. Such images are unique as this is the time of the Saturnian year when Saturn is approaching its own equinox. For the first time, astronomers have been able to image unusual vertical structures in the rings. Of course the rings are not solid themselves, and the illusion of vertical structures is caused by the location of thousands of small icy debris, effected by the gravitational pull of a nearby Saturnian moon.