The Shattered Rings of Saturn

May 24, 2007 5:57pm

This image of Saturn’s rings actually came in a couple of days ago, but it’s worth savoring at about the speed at which Saturn orbits the Sun.  Click on the image to enlarge. The colors are false.  The image, based on data sent by the Cassini probe orbiting Saturn, doesn’t actually show the rings at all–instead, it’s a compilation made of instants in time when hunks of debris in the rings occulted, or blocked, distant stars in the background.  There’s a fuller explanation HERE.  Why does it matter?  It shows how the rings are made of irregular chunks, many of them more than a hundred feet across.  Science has known for a long time that Saturn’s rings could not possibly be solid, but this image is a new view of their real makeup. This is the way of the universe.  Carolyn Porco, the head of the Cassini imaging team, told us, when the ship reached Saturn, that she was interested in the mission (she’d been on the project since 1990) because much of the universe is made of two shapes–spheres and discs.  She has a point.  There are plenty of spheres–planets, stars, moons–and then there are discs, such as solar systems, galaxies, and Saturn’s rings.  But they tend to be irregular, with concentrations of material separated by vast empty space.  Porco often writes lyrical essays at the Cassini team’s site HERE. (Scroll down to "Captain’s Log," if you’re not diverted by other stuff on the page. In the meantime, one more picture to savor. 

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