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More Saturn's Rings

July 6, 2011

The Moon is creeping up on Saturn tonight. The planet looks like a bright golden star well to the upper left of the Moon at nightfall.

Through a telescope, you can see Saturn's bright, beautiful rings. You can also make out a few dark "gaps" in the rings. They're not really gaps, though; they just don't contain as much material as the bright sections of the rings. They contain sheets of tiny grains of dust, as well as a few clumps of denser material.

One of those clumps is known as the Huygens Ringlet. It's on the inner edge of the dark Cassini Division. A recent study says it might have formed just a few decades ago.

The ringlet is less than 15 miles wide, and it circles only partway around Saturn. Unlike some similar structures found elsewhere in the rings, it's not flanked by small moons to act as gravitational shepherds, keeping the material in place.

To a pair of researchers from the Space Science Institute, this suggested that the ringlet must be quite young. In fact, their simulations show that the ringlet could have formed as recently as 60 years ago, when a comet slammed into a small moon. The collision pulverized both bodies, leaving a cloud of debris that quickly spread out to form a ringlet.

In this scenario -- which some other planetary scientists disagree with, by the way -- the material will quickly dissipate, and Huygens Ringlet will disappear.

We'll talk about one of Saturn's current moons tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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