Saturn's rings were named in the order they were discovered. Working outward they are: D, C, B, A, F, G and E. The G ring is one of the outer diffuse rings. Within the faint G ring there is a relatively bright and narrow, 250-kilometer-wide (150-miles) arc of ring material, which extends 150,000 kilometers (90,000 miles), or one-sixth of the way around the ring's circumference. The moonlet moves within this ring arc. Previous Cassini plasma and dust measurements indicated that this partial ring may be produced from relatively large, icy particles embedded within the arc, such as this moonlet.
Cassini imaging scientists analyzing images acquired over the course of about 600 days found the tiny moonlet, half a kilometer (about a third of a mile) across, embedded within a partial ring, or ring arc, previously found by Cassini in Saturn's tenuous G ring.
This sequence of three images, obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft over the course of about 10 minutes, shows the path of a newly found moonlet in a bright arc of Saturn's faint G ring.
In each image, a small streak of light within the ring is visible. Unlike the streaks in the background, which are distant stars smeared by the camera's long exposure time of 46 seconds, this streak is aligned with the G ring and moves along the ring as expected for an object embedded in the ring.
Cassini scientists interpret the moving streak to be reflected light from a tiny moon half a kilometer (a third of mile) wide that is likely a major source of material in the arc and the rest of the G ring. Debris knocked off this moon forms a relatively bright arc of material near the inner edge of the G ring, the most visible part of the ring in these images. That arc, in turn, leaks material to form the entire ring. These images were captured by Cassini's narrow-angle camera on Oct. 27, 2008. The first image (left) was taken in visible light, the second image (middle) was taken in red light, and the third image (right) in near-infrared light centered at a wavelength of 750 nanometers. Image scale for the first image is 7 kilometers (4 miles) per pixel. The second and third images were taken at reduced resolution. These spatially compressed images were captured at 14 kilometers (9 miles) per pixel and then displayed at a size equal to the first image. This view looks toward the un-illuminated side of the rings from about 5 degrees above the ringplane. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.2 million kilometers (751,000 miles) from Saturn and at a sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 23 degrees. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
"Before Cassini, the G ring was the only dusty ring that was not clearly associated with a known moon, which made it odd," said Matthew Hedman, a Cassini imaging team associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "The discovery of this moonlet, together with other Cassini data, should help us make sense of this previously mysterious ring."
Scientists imaged the moonlet on Aug. 15, 2008, and then they confirmed its presence by finding it in two earlier images. They have since seen the moonlet on multiple occasions, most recently on Feb. 20, 2009. The moonlet is too small to be resolved by Cassini's cameras, so its size cannot be measured directly. However, Cassini scientists estimated the moonlet's size by comparing its brightness to another small Saturnian moon, Pallene.
Hedman and his collaborators also have found that the moonlet's orbit is being disturbed by the larger, nearby moon Mimas, which is responsible for keeping the ring arc together.
This brings the number of Saturnian ring arcs with embedded moonlets found by Cassini to three. The new moonlet may not be alone in the G ring arc. Previous measurements with other Cassini instruments implied the existence of a population of particles, possibly ranging in size from 1 to 100 meters (about three to several hundred feet) across. "Meteoroid impacts into, and collisions among, these bodies and the moonlet could liberate dust to form the arc," said Hedman.
Carl Murray, a Cassini imaging team member and professor at Queen Mary, University of London, said, "The moon's discovery and the disturbance of its trajectory by the neighboring moon Mimas highlight the close association between moons and rings that we see throughout the Saturn system. Hopefully, we will learn in the future more about how such arcs form and interact with their parent bodies."
Early next year, Cassini's camera will take a closer look at the arc and the moonlet. The Cassini Equinox mission, an extension of the original four-year mission, is expected to continue until fall of 2010.