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, 440 (7084), 648-50

100-metre-diameter Moonlets in Saturn's A Ring From Observations of 'Propeller' Structures


100-metre-diameter Moonlets in Saturn's A Ring From Observations of 'Propeller' Structures

Matthew S Tiscareno et al. Nature.


Saturn's main rings are composed predominantly of water-ice particles ranging between about 1 centimetre and 10 metres in radius. Above this size range, the number of particles drops sharply, according to the interpretation of spacecraft and stellar occultations. Other than the gap moons Pan and Daphnis (the provisional name of S/2005 S1), which have sizes of several kilometres, no individual bodies in the rings have been directly observed, and the population of ring particles larger than ten metres has been essentially unknown. Here we report the observation of four longitudinal double-streaks in an otherwise bland part of the mid-A ring. We infer that these 'propeller'-shaped perturbations arise from the effects of embedded moonlets approximately 40 to 120 m in diameter. Direct observation of this phenomenon validates models of proto-planetary disks in which similar processes are posited. A population of moonlets, as implied by the size distribution that we find, could help explain gaps in the more tenuous regions of the Cassini division and the C ring. The existence of such large embedded moonlets is most naturally compatible with a ring originating in the break-up of a larger body, but accretion from a circumplanetary disk is also plausible if subsequent growth onto large particles occurs after the primary accretion phase has concluded.

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