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Cassini Radio Signals Decipher Saturn Ring Structure

May 23, 2005

JPL — The Cassini spacecraft has obtained the most detailed look ever at Saturn’s rings, including the B ring, which has eluded previous robotic explorers. Its structure seems remarkably different from its two neighbors, rings A and C.

The origin of Saturn’s rings is a mystery. The rings are an enormous, complex structure. From edge-to-edge, the ring system would not even fit in the distance between Earth and the Moon. The seven main rings are labeled in the order they were discovered. From the planet outward, they are D, C, B, A, F, G and E.

During a recent radio experiment, Cassini mapped this structure with clarity never before available. This is the first of many such observations Cassini will be conducting over the summer.

“The structure of those remarkable rings is a sight to behold. All ring features appear to be populated by a broad range of particle sizes that extend to many meters in diameter at the upper end,” said Dr. Essam Marouf, Cassini radio science team member and professor of electrical engineering, San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif.

Marouf said that at the lower end, particles of about 5 centimeters (roughly 2 inches) in diameter or less seem to be scarce in ring B and inner ring A. In rings C and outer ring A, particles of less than about 5 centimeters (2 inches) in diameter seem to be abundant.

Cassini found that the inner and outer parts of ring B contain rings that are hundreds of kilometers wide (hundreds of miles) and vary greatly in the amount of material they contain. A thick, 5,000-kilometer-wide (3,100-mile) core contains several bands with ring material that is nearly four times as dense as that of ring A and nearly 20 times as dense as that of ring C.

The dramatically varying structure of ring B is in sharp contrast to the relatively flat structure of ring A or the gentle, wavy structure of ring C, where many dense, narrow and sharp-edged ringlets permeate its outer part.

Cassini also detected more than 40 wavy features called “density waves” in ring A, many near its outer region, close to the moons orbiting just outside the ring. The density wave observations will tell more about the ring surface mass density, its vertical thickness and other physical properties.

“A marvelous array of waves, caused by gravitational interactions with nearby moons, has been uncovered throughout ring A,” said Marouf. “We also see a major density wave in the dense ring B. Some of these waves have been seen in Voyager and other Cassini observations, but not in this large number and not with this exceptional clarity.”

Cassini conducted this first radio occultation observation of Saturn’s rings, atmosphere and ionosphere on May 3, 2005. An occultation means that if you watch Cassini from Earth, Cassini would appear occulted, or hidden, behind the rings.

During a radio occultation, Cassini sends a radio signal from the spacecraft through the rings to Earth. Scientists then watch how the strength of the radio signal is affected as the signal passes through ring material. The denser a ring is, the weaker the signal received. The experiment helps scientists map the distribution of the amount of ring material and determine the ring particle sizes.

The occultation was the first ever to use three radio signals of different frequencies (called Ka, X and S) transmitted simultaneously from a spacecraft to Earth-receiving stations of NASA’s Deep Space Network. Ring particles of different sizes affect each frequency differently.

The Cassini tour was specifically designed to optimize the geometry of the first radio occultation experiment and seven other occultations scheduled from May to September 2005.

These observations are at the heart of Cassini’s fundamental science objectives of characterizing and understanding Saturn and its ring system. During its lifetime, Cassini will obtain 20 radio occultations and 80 stellar occultations, providing far more detailed knowledge of the ring structures.

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 Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

Images and Captions

Image 1: Radio Occultation: Unraveling Saturn’s Rings (above) — Specially designed Cassini orbits place Earth and Cassini on opposite sides of Saturn’s rings, a geometry known as occultation. Cassini conducted the first radio occultation observation of Saturn’s rings on May 3, 2005.

Three simultaneous radio signals of 0.94, 3.6, and 13 centimeter wavelength (Ka-, X-, and S-bands) were sent from Cassini through the rings to Earth. The observed change of each signal as Cassini moved behind the rings provided a profile of the distribution of ring material as a function of distance from Saturn, or an optical depth profile.

This simulated image was constructed from the measured optical depth profiles. It depicts the observed ring structure at about 10 kilometers (6 miles) in resolution. Color is used to represent information about ring particle sizes in different regions based on the measured effects of the three radio signals.

Purple color indicates regions where there is a lack of particles of size less than 5 centimeters (about 2 inches). Green and blue shades indicate regions where there are particles smaller than 5 centimeters (2 inches) and 1 centimeter (less than one third of one inch). The saturated broad white band near the middle of ring B is the densest region of ring B, over which two of the three radio signals were blocked at 10-kilometer (6-mile) resolution, preventing accurate color representation over this band. From other evidence in the radio observations, all ring regions appear to be populated by a broad range particle size distribution that extends to boulder sizes (several to many meters across).

Image 2: Small Particles in Ring A — Specially designed Cassini orbits place Earth and Cassini on opposite sides of Saturn’s rings, a geometry known as occultation. Cassini conducted the first radio occultation observation of Saturn’s rings on May 3, 2005.

Three simultaneous radio signals of 0.94, 3.6, and 13 centimeter wavelengths (Ka-, X-, and S-bands) were sent from Cassini through the rings to Earth. The observed change of each signal as Cassini moved behind the rings provided a profile of the distribution of ring material and an optical depth profile.

This simulated image was constructed from the measured optical depth profiles of the Cassini Division and ring A. It depicts the observed structure at about 10 kilometers (6 miles) in resolution. Many radial features evident across ring A, but especially exterior to the Encke and Keeler gaps (the broad and narrow black bands on the right side of the image), are wavy features called “density waves.” They are caused by gravitational interaction with moons outside ring A.

Color is used to represent information about ring particle sizes based on the measured effects of the three radio signals. Shades of purple indicate regions where there is a lack of particles less than 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) in diameter. Green and blue shades indicate regions where there are particles of sizes smaller than 5 centimeters (2 inches) and 1 centimeter (less than one third of an inch), respectively.

Note the gradual increase in shades of green towards the outer edge of ring A. It indicates gradual increase in the abundance of 5-centimeter (2-inch) and smaller particles. Frequent collisions between large ring particles in this dynamically active region likely fragment the larger particles into more numerous smaller ones.

Image 3: Multiple Eyes of Cassini — Cassini instruments provide complementary information about the structure of Saturn’s rings. Narrow and wide angle cameras provide images in the visible region of the electromagnetic, spectrum much like a digital camera does. The images have information about how the ring structure differs both with distance from the planet and with position around the equatorial circle. However, resolution is usually limited to few kilometers at best.

Radio and stellar occultations of the rings also provide important information about ring structure, but only along a one-dimensional track through the rings. The radial resolution can be as fine as 50 meters (164 feet). An “image” is then constructed by assuming circular symmetry over the ring region of interest. Color is usually added to encode other information related to the observed structure.

This image compares structure of Saturn’s rings observed by these two approaches. The upper half is a natural color mosaic of images by the Cassini narrow-angle camera (see Small Particles in Ring A. The bottom simulated images is constructed from a radio occultation observation conducted on May 3, 2005. Color in the lower image is used to represent information about ring particle sizes. For another view created using this process see.

Image 4: Small Particles in Saturn’s Rings — Specially designed Cassini orbits place Earth and Cassini on opposite sides of Saturn’s rings, a geometry known as occultation. Cassini conducted the first radio occultation observation of Saturn’s rings on May 3, 2005.

Three simultaneous radio signals of 0.94, 3.6, and 13 centimeter wavelengths (Ka-, X-, and S-bands) were sent from Cassini through the rings to Earth. The observed change of each signal as Cassini moved behind the rings provided a profile of the distribution of ring material as a function of distance from Saturn, or an optical depth profile.

This simulated image was constructed from the measured optical depth profiles. It depicts the observed ring structure at about 10 kilometers (6 miles) in resolution. Color is used to represent information about ring particle sizes in different regions based on the measured effects of the three radio signals.

Shades of purple, primarily over most of the inner ring (ring B) and the inner portion of the next ring (ring A), indicate regions where there is a lack of particles less than 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) in diameter. Green and blue shades indicate regions where there are particles of sizes smaller than 5 centimeters (2 inches) and 1 centimeter (less than one third of an inch), respectively, primarily in outer ring A and within most of ring C. From other evidence in the radio observations, all ring regions appear to be populated by a broad range of particle size distribution that extends to boulder sizes (several to many meters or yards across).

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