December 12, 2007
Like Earth, Saturn has an invisible ring of energetic ions trapped in its magnetic field. This feature is known as a "ring current." This ring current has been imaged with a special camera on Cassini sensitive to energetic neutral atoms.
This is a false color map of the intensity of the energetic neutral atoms emitted from the ring current through a processed called charged exchange. In this process a trapped energetic ion steals and electron from cold gas atoms and becomes neutral and escapes the magnetic field.
The Cassini Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument's ion and neutral camera records the intensity of the escaping particles, which provides a map of the ring current. In this image, the colors represent the intensity of the neutral emission, which is a reflection of the trapped ions. This "ring" is much farther from Saturn (roughly five times farther) then Saturn's famous icy rings. Red in the image represents the higher intensity of the particles, while blue is less intense.
Saturn's ring current had not been mapped before on a global scale, only "snippets" or areas were mapped previously but not in this detail. This instrument allows scientists to produce movies (See Clumpy Moons) that show how this ring changes over time. These movies reveal a dynamic system, which is usually not as uniform as depicted in this image. The ring current is doughnut shaped but in some instances it appears as if someone took a bite out of it.
This image was obtained on March 19, 2007, at a latitude of about 54.5 degrees and radial distance 1.5 million kilometers (920,000 miles). Saturn is at the center, and the dotted circles represent the orbits of the moon's Rhea and Titan. The Z axis points parallel to Saturn's spin axis, the X axis points roughly sunward in the sun-spin axis plane, and the Y axis completes the system, pointing roughly toward dusk. The ion and neutral camera's field of view is marked by the white line and accounts for the cut-off of the image on the left. The image is an average of the activity over a (roughly) 3-hour period.
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, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The magnetospheric imaging instrument was designed, built and is operated by an international team lead by the Applied Physics Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University, Laurel, Md.