Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Propellers and wakes in Saturn's rings

This figure shows results from an Nbody simulation of a small patch in Saturn's rings; click figure to zoom in. Small dots represent meter sized ring particles, while the circle at the center is a 150m moonlet that is embedded in the ring. All bodies are travelling to the right as they orbit Saturn, but keep in mind that those nearer Saturn (which is far downwards in this figure) orbit faster, so ring particles in the lower x<0 half of this figure are drifting towards the right side of the moonlight, while those in the upper x>0 half are drifting left of the moonlet. This Nbody simulation was performed by Shugo Michikoshi and Eiichiro Kokubo, and their results are detailed in this preprint.

The upper figure shows what happens in a low mass ring having a surface density of 60 grams/cm^2. As particles drift past the moonlet they receive a kick due to the moonlet's gravity, which in turn opens a propeller-shaped gap in the ring. The Cassini spacecraft has in fact observed many such propellers orbiting in Saturn's A ring, like the one seen below; see the CICLOPS website for more details about this image. Curiously, the model predicts that the propeller should appear as a dark gap in the ring, while the Cassini image below shows that a propeller is bright. The meaning of this is unclear, but it may indicate that the propeller gap is also filled with sunlight-reflecting dust grains that are produced as ring particles collide near the moonlet.

The lower Nbody simulation (in the lower half of the top graphic) shows results for a high mass ring of surface density 400 grams/cm^2. In this case, the higher ring gravity cause the ring particles to condense into ropy or taffy-like structures that are known as wakes. These wakes dominate the ring's appearance and completely wash-out the propeller that the moonlet is trying to form. The fact that propellers are seen in Saturn's A ring, while none have been observed in Saturn's B ring, suggest that the A ring is a relatively low mass ring that allows moonlets to form propellers, while the B ring is massive and full of gravitating wakes that inhibit any such propellers.

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