Saturn is one of the most beautiful planets in our solar system thanks in large part to its gigantic system of rings. Those rings can be difficult to see most of the time, but about halfway through Saturn’s 30 Earth year orbit around the sun, those rings stand out in beautiful detail. The reason is that in the 15th year of Saturn’s 30-year cycle Saturn’s day and nights are equal and sunlight is able to shine on the rings edge-on making them easier to see.
The last time this phenomenon happened was in 2009, and NASA took full advantage of the situation having its Casini spacecraft snap some beautiful photographs of Saturn’s rings. The photographs have recently shown up as scientists used the photographs to perform some research investigating clouds of dust created in the ring system when those rings are struck by meteoroids and other objects flying through space. Scientists say that it’s very easy to see the clouds of dust, called ejecta, spewing out of the ring system in this view.
Researcher Matthew Tiscareno, a planetary scientist from Cornell University, and his team used the photographs taken by Cassini to investigate the ejecta to determine what kind of impact had created the dust plumes. The team of researchers looked for observed dust clouds anytime between one hour and 50 hours after the initial impact. The team worked backwards measuring the length and tilt of the cloud to see what sort of impact created the dust cloud.
According to Tiscareno and his team, by analyzing the images of Saturn’s ring system they were able to determine that the ejecta clouds they observed were created by “streams of meteoroids” plunging through Saturn’s ring plane. The researchers initially believe that single meteoroids impacting the ring plane were causing these clouds of debris. His team now believes that single meteoroids moving through the ring plane would create a hole, but not a cloud. These clouds of dust and debris are now believed to have been created by a group of meteoroids that are able to displace a lot of dust at one time. The research performed by the team of scientists is detailed in today’s issue of the journal Science.