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A Mysterious Object Just Made a Dent in One of Saturn's Rings

Astronomers have spotted a strange ding in one of Saturn’s rings using NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. NASA writes:

“Saturn is also known as the 'Jewel of the Solar System'. With sparkling pinks, hues of grey and a hint of brown, its rings look like a painting where nature is the painter”

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Saturn’s rings are composed of trillions of particles of dust, rock, and ice circling the planet at different speeds up to thousands of miles per hour. The size of these particles can range from as little as a grain of sand to bigger than a skyscraper. Astronomers spotted the dent in Saturn’s F ring – its outermost discrete ring. Astronomer also refer ‘F ring’ as the most active ring in the solar system. Astronomers can observe its features shifting over the course of a few hours. The disturbance, NASA said, was possibly caused by a small object embedded in the ring.

John Weiss, a ring scientist in Washington State, said:

“There’s good evidence that there’s a lot of these sized bodies in the core of the ring itself, but you can’t normally see them because they’re covered by the dust cloud around them. But they’re in there, and every so often move across the ring space and blow a bunch of those dust particles out. This one was travelling faster than [3 feet (0.9 metres)] per second”
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

When this tiny object made contact with some of the stuff in the ring’s core, it formed something that astronomers sometimes call a 'jet'. Astronomers think that these jets are made thanks to the gravitational pull of Saturn’s small, potato-shaped moon Prometheus.

"[Prometheus] acts as a cosmic shepherd, sculpting the F ring as it makes its orbit around Saturn. But the moon’s route isn’t perfectly circular, and its uneven pull can create clumps inside the ring that then shoot out as jets."

The impact itself actually occurred pretty recently – within a day or so of when this picture was captured on April 8, Weiss said. In the two months since the picture was captured, "The wound has just about stitched itself back up," National Geographic writes.

"You get to expecting in planetary science for things to have happened millions of years ago, and you don’t think to ever get to observe things actively happening. But that’s the kind of funky thing with Saturn’s rings. You can actually see evidence of things that happened yesterday, or the day before."

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