The grainy texture of Saturn’s rings reveals clues to their origins

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This false-color image to the right shows an infrared spectral map of Saturn’s A, B and C rings, captured by Cassini’s VIMS. Infrared image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/CNRS/LPG-Nantes; Saturn image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

New analysis of data from the Cassini mission shows that Saturn’s rings are not smooth, but rather are grainy in texture. Scientists believe that tiny moons within the rings cause materials to cluster and form clumps and straw-like patterns, revealing rings which are more complex and dynamic than we realized.

Scientists recently discovered that Saturn’s moons were influenced by its rings, as the rings deposited material onto the moons and changed their shape. Now it seems that the process works the other way round as well, with the moons interacting with the particles in the rings to cause these variations in texture.

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New images of Saturn’s rings show how textures differ even in close proximity of one another. The images on the bottom have been filtered so that the straw-like textures and clumps are more visible. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This information is important because it tells us more about how Saturn’s rings formed and about the formation of planets in general. The scientists found a set of streaks around the outer edge of the rings which are all the same length and orientation, which suggests they were formed by material hitting the rings at the same time. This implies that the rings are formed from material which is already in orbit around the planet, rather than being formed from external material like comets crashing into the rings.

“These new details of how the moons are sculpting the rings in various ways provide a window into solar system formation, where you also have disks evolving under the influence of masses embedded within them,” lead author and Cassini scientist Matt Tiscareno of the SETI Institute said in a statement.

There are three types of texture discovered in the rings — clumpy, smooth, and streaky — and these textures occur in distinct bands within the rings. The challenge for the scientists now is to explain why these textures have sharp boundaries in this way. “This tells us the way the rings look is not just a function of how much material there is,” Tiscareno said in the same statement. “There has to be something different about the characteristics of the particles, perhaps affecting what happens when two ring particles collide and bounce off each other. And we don’t yet know what it is.”

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