Washington, August 8 (ANI): Recent images captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft are revealing new three-dimensional objects and structures in Saturn's otherwise flat rings, thanks to the planet approaching equinox on August 11th.
Through the detections of shadows cast upon the rings, a moonlet has been spotted for the first time in Saturn's dense B ring and narrow vertical structures are seen soaring upward from Saturn's intricate F ring.
The search for three-dimensional structures in Saturn's rings has been a major goal of the imaging team during Cassini's "Equinox Mission," the 27-month-long period containing exact equinox - that moment when the sun is seen directly overhead at noon at the planet's equator.
This novel illumination geometry, which occurs every half-Saturn-year, or about 15 Earth years, lowers the sun's angle to the ring plane and causes out-of-plane structures to cast long shadows across the rings' broad expanse, making them easy to detect.
Saturn's rings are hundreds of thousands of miles or kilometers wide, but the main rings - D, C, B and A rings (working outward from the planet) - are only about 30 feet, or 10 meters, thick.
These main rings lie inside the relatively narrow F ring.
The thinness of the rings - well below the resolving power of the spacecraft's cameras - makes the determination of vertical deviations from them difficult through routine imaging.
Solid evidence of these newly seen structures and others like them becomes available only during the period of equinox when features protruding above and below the rings can cast shadows.
The new moonlet in the B ring, situated about 300 miles, or 480 kilometers, inward from the outer edge of the B ring, was found because of a shadow 25 miles, or 41 kilometers, long that it throws on the rings.
The shadow length implies the moonlet is protruding about 660 feet, or 200 meters, above the ring plane.
If the moonlet is orbiting in the same plane as the ring material surrounding it, which is likely, it must be about 1,300 feet, or 400 meters, across.
In recent weeks, scientists also have collected a series of images of shadows being cast by vertically extended structures or objects in the F ring.
Imaging scientists are working to understand the origin of these structures. (ANI)