Washington, March 7 : NASA's Cassini spacecraft has found evidence of a broad debris disk and at least one ring orbiting Rhea - Saturn's second largest moon, which makes this the first time that rings may have been found around a moon.
A suite of six instruments on Cassini, which are specifically designed to study the atmospheres and particles around Saturn and its moons, had made the detection.
The discovery was a result of a Cassini close flyby of Rhea in November 2005, when instruments on the spacecraft observed the environment around the moon.
Evidence for a debris disk in addition to this tenuous dust cloud came from a gradual drop on either side of Rhea in the number of electrons detected by two of Cassini's instruments.
Material near Rhea appeared to be shielding Cassini from the usual rain of electrons. Cassini's Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument also detected sharp, brief drops in electrons on both sides of the moon, suggesting the presence of rings within the disk of debris.
Rhea is roughly 950 miles in diameter. The apparent debris disk measures several thousand miles from end to end. The particles that make up the disk and any embedded rings probably range from the size of small pebbles to boulders.
An additional dust cloud may extend up to 3,000 miles from the moon's center, almost eight times the radius of Rhea.
One possible explanation for these rings is that they are remnants from an asteroid or comet collision in Rhea's distant past. Such a collision may have pitched large quantities of gas and solid particles around Rhea. Once the gas dissipated, all that remained were the ring particles.
"Like finding planets around other stars, and moons around asteroids, these findings are opening a new field of rings around moons," said Norbert Krupp, a scientist on Cassini's Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.
Since the discovery, Cassini scientists have carried out numerical simulations to determine if Rhea can maintain rings. The models show that Rhea's gravity field, in combination with its orbit around Saturn, could allow rings that form to remain in place for a very long time.
According to Candy Hansen, Cassini scientist on the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, "Many years ago we thought Saturn was the only planet with rings. Now we may have a moon of Saturn that is a miniature version of its even more elaborately decorated parent."