Cassini Pinpoints a Propeller in Saturn’s Rings

A “propeller” feature in Saturn’s rings imaged in high definition by Cassini. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured these images of a propeller in Saturn’s A ring on Feb. 21, 2017. These are the sharpest images ever taken of a propeller and reveal an unprecedented level of detail. This propeller is nicknamed “Santos-Dumont” after the Brazilian-French aviator who is hailed as the father of aviation in Brazil.

The February 2017 imaging was Cassini’s first targeted observation of a propeller. The two views show the same object from opposite sides of the rings. The top image looks toward the rings’ sunlit side, while the bottom image shows the unilluminated side, where sunlight filters through the backlit ring.

Propellers are the term given to small disturbances in Saturn’s rings caused by the gravitational influence of embedded moonlets. They are thematically nicknamed in honor of famous world aviators. The particularly large propeller Santos-Dumont is caused by an object a little over half a mile (1 km) across.

More than just being ring decorations, propellers are important to researchers because they mimic the behavior of objects in an orbiting debris field; they are sort of like miniature protoplanets inside a circumstellar disk. They were first spotted by Cassini in July 2004.

“Observing the motions of these disk-embedded objects provides a rare opportunity to gauge how the planets grew from, and interacted with, the disk of material surrounding the early sun,” said Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco in 2010. “It allows us a glimpse into how the solar system ended up looking the way it does.”

Read the rest of this story here: Cassini Targets a Propeller in Saturn’s A Ring