The Science of Sustainability

Equinox on Saturn Reveals Ring Ripples

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Bumps and ripples in the otherwise flat ring system of Saturn cast long shadows at equinox. Image credit: NASA/CassiniImagine a vast, flat plain spreading out before you for tens of thousands of miles in all directions, with no Earthly curvature to give the horizon its slightly finite look. Instead, it stretches seemingly to the infinite blackness of space in one direction, and slices straight into the streaky, wind-smoothed clouds of Saturn in the other…

Hard to imagine what it would be like to float just above the rings of Saturn, but what a sight it must be! As a kid, one of my favorite astronomical pass-times was imagining the view from other places in the Solar System.

Now imagine a towering bulge of frosty mist rising up out of this super-flat plane of ice chunks, literally the size of a mountain. Such is what was beheld by NASA's Cassini spacecraft last month–albeit, from a distance–when it turned its cameras to Saturn's vast rings during the few days surrounding Saturn's equinox (August 29, 2009), giving us a view never before seen.

Equinox on Earth, when the Sun is positioned directly over our equator, happens twice a year. Due to Earth's tilted rotational axis, as we orbit the Sun the latitude over which the Sun shines directly cycles north and south between the latitudes of the Tropics. On its way north to warm our (Northern Hemisphere) summers or south to leave us in the chill, the Sun crosses the equator on the equinoxes (Fall and Spring).

The same thing happens on Saturn, with two differences. First, Saturn takes nearly 30 years to orbit the Sun, so equinox comes only about every 14 years. Second, Saturn has its system of rings that encircle the planet directly above its equator, serving as a visible extension of the equator. At Saturn's equinox, the Sun is not only directly over the equator, but sunlight strikes the rings edge-on, like a flashlight shining on a flat piece of paper from the edge, the light just grazing over the surfaces on either side.

When this happens, any deviations from the flatness of the ring system—bumps and ripples–cast long shadows across the rings, making the features much easier to see. The same thing is seen on that piece of paper with shadows from creases and bumps leaping across the page.

As seen from Earth, equinox on Saturn means the rings appear to vanish as we look at them edge-on. This behavior puzzled astronomers long ago before they understood the rings for what they are. During the August 2009 Saturn equinox, however, for the first time in history we had a bird's-eye view of the rings during equinox, from Cassini. Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn for five years now.

Cassini spotted a number of prominent shadows trailing bright spots and ridges—bumps and ripples of different sorts rising above the ring plane.

Some of the bumps–icy ring material kicked up by the gravitational disturbance of a small moonlet inside the rings–were measured at over two miles high, the height of the Rocky Mountains. Other rippling features, such as long ridges running along the direction the rings encircle Saturn, are waves created by the gravity of moons orbiting outside the ring system. Still other types of disturbances observed are possibly caused by the impact of meteoroids or chunks of ice with the rings.

Saturn's rings are tens of thousands of miles across, but are extremely thin—perhaps no thicker than the height of a four-story building! So a bump or ripple as high as a mountain is a big deal!

Ah, to be on Saturn, now that equinox is here…

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Category: Astronomy, Partners, Physics

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Ben Burress

About the Author ()

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.