Keeping a close watch on the outer portion of Saturn's B ring, NASA's Cassini spacecraft records the complex inward and outward movement of the edge of the ring. This ring movement resembles the suspected behavior of spiral disk galaxies.
The position of the outer edge of the B ring, shown here crossing the middle of the frame, varies with time in this concatenation of 301 images taken an average of 1 minute, 50 seconds apart, over the span of about nine hours. The total variation of the edge, from the innermost to outermost locations, is 200 kilometers (120 miles). The eccentric Huygens Ringlet, another very narrow ringlet discovered by Cassini, and the innermost of the bands of ring material in the Cassini Division, a low-density region once thought to be empty, all appear in the top of the frame.
Cassini scientists have determined that the complicated radial variations in the B ring edge are caused by the presence of four scalloped patterns, all independently moving around the ring. One pattern, with two lobes, is present because of the gravitational perturbations from the moon Mimas, which alter the ring particle orbits because of a repetitive configuration of particle and satellite orbital positions known as a Lindblad resonance; this pattern always stays fixed with respect to Mimas.
The other patterns with one, two, and three lobes respectively, travel around the ring with differing speeds and are believed to be natural modes of oscillation of the ring in this vicinity, excited by a process known as "viscous overstability." In this process, the small, random motions of the ring particles feed energy into a wave that propagates outward across the ring from an inner boundary, reflects off the outer edge of the B ring (which becomes distorted as a result), and then travels inward until it reflects off the inner boundary. This continuous back-and-forth reflection is necessary for these wave patterns to grow and become visible as distortions in the outer edge of the B ring.
In supporting these so-called "self-excited" modes, the outer edge of the B ring is behaving the way astronomers believe spiral galaxies behave. However, such modes are not directly observable in galaxies. Cassini's observations of the outer B ring edge constitute the first time such large-scale modes in a broad disk of material have been observed in nature.
The movie repeats twice. The second time the movie runs, the location of the Mimas resonance (marked with a green line), the locations of the inner boundaries for the one-lobed (blue), two-lobed (yellow), and three-lobed (red) modes, and the location of the mean radius of the outer edge of the B ring (white) are all indicated.
The images were re-projected into the same viewing geometry and magnified by a factor of two to increase visibility of features. Image scale was about 2 kilometers (about 1 mile) per pixel in the original images. These images have not been cleaned of cosmic rays that struck the camera's sensor during exposure. These cosmic ray hits appear as small white streaks on the images.
The view looks toward the southern, sunlit side of the rings from about 44 degrees below the ring plane.
The images were taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Jan. 28, 2008. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 424,000 kilometers (264,000 miles) from Saturn and at a sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 52 degrees.
The Cassini Solstice Mission is a joint United States and European endeavor. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team consists of scientists from the US, England, France, and Germany. The imaging operations center and team lead (Dr. C. Porco) are based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.