Saturn seen by Cassini in 2008. © NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A constantly renewed ring of Saturn

Hi there! The outstanding Cassini mission ended last September with its Grand Finale, and it gave us invaluable data, which will still be studied for many years. Today I present you a study which has recently been published in The Astrophysical Journal: Particles co-orbital to Janus and Epimetheus: A firefly planetary ring, by a Brazilian team composed of Othon C. Winter, Alexandre P.S. Souza, Rafael Sfair, Silvia M. Giuliatti Winter, Daniela C. Mourão, and Dietmar W. Foryta. This study tells us how the authors characterized a dusty ring in the system of Saturn, studied its stability, and investigated its origin.

The rings of Saturn

As you may know, Saturn is the ringed planet, its rings being visible from Earth-based amateur telescopes. Actually, the 4 major planets of our Solar System have rings, and some dwarf planets as well, i.e. Chariklo, Haumea, and possibly Chiron. But Saturn is the only one with so dense rings. I summarize below the main relevant structures and distances, from the center of Saturn:

Distance Structure
60,268 km The atmospheric pressure of Saturn reaches 1 bar.
This is considered as the equatorial radius of Saturn.
66,900 – 74,510 km D Ring
74,658 – 92,000 km C Ring
92,000 – 117,580 km B Ring
117,580 – 122,170 km Cassini Division
122,170 – 136,775 km A Ring
133,589 km Encke Gap
140,180 km F Ring
151,500 km Orbits of Janus and Epimetheus
189,000 km Orbit of Mimas
1,222,000 km Orbit of Titan

The A and B Rings are the densest ones. They are separated by the Cassini Division, which appears as a lack of material. It actually contains some, arranged as ringlets, but they are very faint. The Encke Gap is a depletion of material as well, in which the small satellite Pan confines the boundaries. Here we are interested in a dusty ring enshrouding the orbits of Janus and Epimetheus, i.e. outside the dense rings. The discovery of this ring had been announced in 2006, this study reveals its characteristics.

The rings of Saturn seen by Cassini. From right to left: the A Ring with the Encke Gap, the Cassini Division, the B Ring, the C Ring, and the D Ring. © NASA
The rings of Saturn seen by Cassini. From right to left: the A Ring with the Encke Gap, the Cassini Division, the B Ring, the C Ring, and the D Ring. © NASA

Janus and Epimetheus

The two coorbital satellites Janus and Epimetheus are a unique case in the Solar System, since these are two bodies with roughly the same size (diameters: ~180 and ~120 km, respectively), which share the same orbit around Saturn. More precisely, they both orbit Saturn in 16 hours, i.e. at the same mean orbital frequency. This is a case of 1:1 mean-motion resonance, involving peculiar mutual gravitational interactions, which prevent them from colliding. They swap their orbits every four years, i.e. the innermost of the two satellites becoming the outermost. The amplitudes of these swaps (26 km for Janus and 95 for Epimetheus) have permitted to know accurately the mass ratio between them, which is 3.56, Janus being the heaviest one.

Interestingly, Epimetheus is the first among the satellites of Saturn for which longitudinal librations have been detected. As many natural satellites, Janus and Epimetheus have a synchronous rotation, showing the same face to a fictitious observer at the surface of Saturn. For Epimetheus, large librations have been detected around this direction, which are a consequence of its elongated shape, and could reveal some mass inhomogeneities, maybe due to variations of porosity, and/or to its pretty irregular shape.

Janus and Epimetheus seen by Cassini (mosaic of 2 images). © NASA
Janus and Epimetheus seen by Cassini (mosaic of 2 images). © NASA

Images of a new ring

So, Cassini images have revealed a dusty ring in that zone. To characterize it, the authors have first extracted images likely to contain it. Such images are made publicly available on NASA’s Planetary Data System. Since that ring had been announced to have been observed on Sept 15th 2006 (see the original press release), the authors restricted to 2 days before and after that date. The data they used were acquired by the ISS (Imaging Science Subsystem) instrument of Cassini, more precisely the NAC and WAC (Narrow- and Wide-Angle-Camera). They finally found 17 images showing the ring.

The images are given as raw data. The authors needed to calibrate their luminosity with a tool (a software) provided by the Cassini team, and sometimes to smooth them, to remove cosmic rays. Moreover, they needed to consider the position of the spacecraft, to be able to precisely locate the structures they would see.

One of the Cassini images used by the authors. I have added red stars at the location of the ring. © NASA / Ciclops
One of the Cassini images used by the authors. I have added red stars at the location of the ring. © NASA / Ciclops

It appears that the ring presents no longitudinal brightness variation. In other words, not only this is a whole ring and not just an arc, but no density variation is obvious. However, it presents radial brightness variations, over a width of 7,500 km, which is wider than the 5,000 km announced in the 2006 press release.

The next step is to understand the dynamics of this ring, i.e. its stability, its origin, the properties of the particles constituting it… Let us start with the stability.

The ring is removed in a few decades

The authors ran N-body simulations, i.e. numerical integrations of the equations ruling the motion of a ring particle, which would be gravitationally perturbed by the surrounding bodies, i.e. Saturn, and the Janus, Epimetheus, Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and Titan. Moreover, for a reason that I will tell you at the end of this article, the authors knew that the particles were smaller than 13 μm. The motions of such small particles are affected by the radiation pressure of the Sun, in other words the Solar light pushes the particles outward.

The authors simulated 14 times the motion of 18,000 particles equally distributed in the rings. Why 14 times? To consider different particle sizes, i.e. one set with 100 μm-sized particles, and the other sets with sizes varying from 1μm to 13μm.
And it appears that these particles collide with something in a few decades, mostly Janus or Epimetheus. This leaves two possibilities: either we were very lucky to be able to take images of the ring while it existed, or a process constantly feeds the ring. The latter option is the most probable one. Let us now discuss this feeding process.

Renewing the ring

The likeliest sources of material for the rings are ejecta from Janus and Epimetheus. The question is: how were these ejecta produced? By impacts, probably. This study show that Janus and Epimetheus are impacted by the particles constituting the rings, but the impact velocities would not permit to produce ejecta. This is why the authors propose a model, in which interplanetary particles collide with the satellites, generating ejecta.

A firefly behavior

And let us finish with something funny: the ring seems to behave like a firefly, i.e. sometimes bright, and sometimes dark, which means undetectable while present.
To understand what happens, figure out how the light would cross a cloud of particles. If the cloud is dense enough, then it would reflect the light, and not be crossed. But for dust, the light would be refracted, i.e. change its direction. This depends on the incidence angle of the Solar light, i.e. on the geometrical configuration of the Sun-Saturn-ring system. The Solar incidence angle is also called phase. And this phase changes with the orbit of Saturn, which results in huge brightness variations of the ring. Sometimes it can be detected, but most of the time it cannot. This can be explained and numerically estimated by the Mie theory, which gives the diffusion of light by small particles. This theory also explains the creation of rainbows, the Solar light being diffracted by droplets of water.

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

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