Moonlets within Saturn's rings engage in "pinball" collisions

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Washington, June 5 : A new study has suggested that boulder-size moonlets within one of Saturn's faintest rings may occasionally collide with other large ring particles on a near-daily basis just as in a pinball game.

According to a report in National Geographic News, scientists tracked the pinball-like action by looking at changing patches of dust in Saturn's active F ring, which was discovered in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The ring is patterned with twisted braids and a spiral structure, thanks mostly to interactions with two small, nearby moons, Prometheus and Pandora.

Carl Murray of Queen Mary College in London and his team, using the Cassini spacecraft, captured the most recent images.

Murray's team pieced together digital images to create 360-degree mosaics of the entire ring over time.

In November 2006, according to Murray, the ring was relatively quiet. But in late December, a three-mile-long (five-kilometer-long) object known as S/2004 S 6-or possibly another object on a very similar orbit-appears to have passed repeatedly through the core of the ring.

That caused a series of collisions, producing numerous bright "jets" of material.

"All of that dust also allowed the scientists to spot gravitational perturbations caused by other hidden moonlets," said Murray.

Other scientists have said that the finding holds significance.

According to Larry Esposito, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the new find helps scientists understand what happens in planet-forming disks around young stars.

"The processes occurring today in Saturn's F ring are like those that created the Earth and other planets," he said.

"There are still plenty of things we need to understand about the F ring," said Murray. "However, we now think that we understand the basic processes that give rise to the various structures that we see," he added.

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