NASA has released its most spectacular images of Saturn yet, revealing that the planet’s rings may actually be millions of orbiting ‘moonlets’.
Images from the Cassini spacecraft show the closest view of the outer parts of Saturn’s main rings ever seen, according to NASA, and resolve details on a scale of 0.3 miles – around the size of the tallest buildings on Earth.
They include previously unseen features within the planet’s rings, including giant ‘propellers’ that suggest a constellation of mini moons are hidden within Saturn rings.
“At that time [when the spacecraft arrived in 2004], fine details like straw and propellers — which are caused by clumping ring particles and small, embedded moonlets, respectively — had never been seen before,” NASA said in a statement.
The rings are comprised of ice, rocks and dust that can range anywhere from flecks to chunks the size of houses. The ‘propellers’ are gaps in the material stretching thousands of miles which scientists believe are created by moonlets.
The moonlets, sized somewhere between a house and 1km in diameter, were described in 2006 as likely to be ‘chunks of the ancient body whose break-up produced Saturn’s glorious rings’, according to Joseph Burns of Cornell University.
Carolyn Porco, the Cassini imaging lead based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said: “As the person who planned those initial orbit-insertion ring images, which remained our most detailed views of the rings for the past 13 years, I am taken aback by how vastly improved are the details in this new collection.”
Cassini, which has been studying Saturn’s rings for nearly 13 years, is now in its ‘ring-grazing’ phase of orbit around the planet. These orbits will continue until late April and then Cassini will begin its ‘grand finale’, where the craft will plunge through the gap between the rings and Saturn.
The space probe’s ‘death spiral’ is scheduled for 26 April, according to Science Alert.
What a way to go, having just released the best views of Saturn rings ever collected.