New light shed on ‘ringed planet’ Saturn’s satellites

18 Sep 2015


Saturn's F ring and its shepherd satellites are natural outcome of the final stage of formation of the planet's ring-satellite system, a new study has found.

Saturn, which is the second largest planet in our solar system, is known for its multiple rings and satellites, and is often called 'the ringed planet'.

In 1979, Pioneer 11 discovered the F ring located just outside the main ring system that extends tens of thousands of kilometres.

The F ring is very narrow with a width of only a few hundred kilometres, and has two shepherd satellites called Prometheus and Pandora, which orbit inside and outside the ring respectively.

Although the Voyager and Cassini spacecraft later made detailed observations of the F ring and its shepherd satellites, their origin has not been clarified.

According to the latest satellite formation theory, Saturn used to have ancient rings containing many more particles than they do today, and satellites formed from spreading and accretion of these particles.

During the final stage of satellite formation, multiple small satellites tend to form near the outer edge of the ring.

On the other hand, observations by Cassini indicate that the small satellites orbiting near the outer edge of the main ring system have a dense core.

In their simulations using in part computer systems at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Hyodo Ryuki, a second-year student in the doctoral programme, and Ohtsuki Keiji, professor at the Graduate School of Science at Kobe University showed that the F ring and its shepherd satellites formed as these small satellites with a dense core collided and partially disintegrated.

In other words, the system of the F ring and its shepherd satellites is a natural outcome of the formation process of Saturn's ring-satellite system.

This new finding is expected to help elucidate the formation of satellite systems both within and outside our solar system.

For example, the above formation mechanism can also be applied to the rings and shepherd satellites of Uranus, which are similar to those of Saturn.

''Through this study, we were able to show that the current rings of Saturn reflect the formation and evolution processes of the planet's satellite system,'' said Ryuki.

''We will continue to unravel the origin of satellite systems, which is key to understanding the formation process of planetary systems,'' said Keiji.

The study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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