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By comparing data from the Voyager fly-bys of Saturn in the 1980s with new data collected by Cassini in the past decade scientists think they can now explain the changes that have occurred in Saturn’s outer F ring.
“The F ring is a narrow, lumpy feature made entirely of water ice that lies just outside the broad, luminous rings A, B, and C,” notes French. “It has bright spots. But it has fundamentally changed its appearance since the time of Voyager. Today, there are fewer of the very bright lumps.” The bright spots come and go over the course of hours or days, a mystery that the two SETI Institute astronomers think they have solved.
“We believe the most luminous knots occur when tiny moons, no bigger than a large mountain, collide with the densest part of the ring,” says French. “These moons are small enough to coalesce and then break apart in short order.”