As Saturn’s springtime approaches on August 11 it is gradually moving into a position when its rings will be perfectly aligned with its orbital plane, causing them to be lit by the sun edge-on. During the months until then many of the moons of Saturn will be casting their shadows upon the rings, fleeting shafts of darkness against the illuminated bits of dust and ice.
The Cassini orbiter has been positioned to capture images of these events, as they will offer up more information about the composition of the rings. Meanwhile, we can enjoy the dramatic interplay of light and dark that these photos offer. It’s a nice visual cue to the position of the moons and the dynamics of the Saturn family.
The photo above shows the 12-mile-wide shepherd moon Pan as its shadow cuts into the edge of the A ring, traveling along a space called the Encke Gap. Below, the shadow of Epimetheus (off-camera) drifts across the A ring as well in an animation made from a series of 21 images.
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As August nears the shadows will grow gradually longer and more pronounced. I look forward to more wonderful images like these from the Cassini orbiter.
Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute