"Observing the motions of these disk-embedded objects provides a rare opportunity to gauge how the planets grew from, and interacted with, the disk of material surrounding the early sun," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., and a co-author on the paper. "It allows us a glimpse into how
the solar system ended up looking the way it does."
The results are published in a new study in the July 8, 2010, issue of the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Cassini scientists first discovered double-armed propeller features in 2006 in an area now known as the "propeller belts" in the middle of Saturn's outermost dense ring, known as the A ring. The spaces were created by a new class of moonlets – smaller than known moons, but larger than the particles in the rings – that could clear the space immediately around them. Those moonlets, which were estimated to number in the millions, were not large enough to clear out their entire path around Saturn, as do the moons Pan and Daphnis.
The propeller features are up to several thousand kilometers (miles) long and several kilometers (miles) wide. The moons embedded in the ring appear to kick up ring material as high as 0.5 kilometers (1,600 feet) above and below the ring plane, which is well beyond the typical ring thickness of about 10 meters (30 feet). Cassini is too far away to see the moons amid the swirling ring material around them, but scientists estimate that they are about a kilometer (half a mile) in diameter because of the size of the propellers.
Tiscareno and colleagues estimate that there are dozens of these giant propellers, and 11 of them were imaged multiple times between 2005 to 2009. One of them, nicknamed Bleriot after the famous aviator Louis Bleriot, has been a veritable Forrest Gump, showing up in more than 100 separate Cassini images and one ultraviolet imaging spectrograph observation over this time.
"Scientists have never tracked disk-embedded objects anywhere in the universe before now," Tiscareno said. "All the moons and planets we knew about before orbit in empty space. In the propeller belts, we saw a swarm in one image and then had no idea later on if we were seeing the same individual objects. With this new discovery, we can now track disk-embedded moons individually over many years."
"Propellers give us unexpected insight into the larger objects in the rings," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Over the next seven years, Cassini will have the opportunity to watch the evolution of these objects and to figure out why their orbits are changing."
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Joe Mason 720-974-5859
Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.