Saturn’s rings paint some of its moons shades of blue and red

Five ring-dwelling objects are different colors, depending on their distance from the planet

Saturn's rings

ONE AND THE SAME  A new study of Saturn’s inner moons suggests they and the planet’s innermost rings (illustrated with the Cassini spacecraft) formed from the same destructive event. 

JPL-Caltech, NASA

Saturn’s rings are painting its innermost moons.

Data from NASA’s now-defunct Cassini spacecraft show that five odd-shaped moons embedded in Saturn’s rings are different colors, and that the hues come from the rings themselves, researchers report. That observation could help scientists figure out how the moons were born.

“The ring moons and the rings themselves are kind of one and the same,” says planetary scientist Bonnie Buratti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “For as long as the moons have existed, they’ve been accreting particles from the rings.” 

Saturn has more than 60 moons, but those nearest to the planet interact closely with its main band of rings. Between December 2016 and April 2017, Cassini passed close to five of these ring-dwelling moons: ravioli-shaped Pan and Atlas (SN Online: 3/10/17), ring-sculpting Daphnis and Pandora (SN: 9/2/17, p. 16) and potato-shaped Epimetheus. The flybys brought Cassini between two and 10 times closer to the moons than it had ever been, before the spacecraft deliberately crashed into Saturn in September 2017 (SN Online: 9/15/17).

Examining those close-ups, Buratti and her colleagues noticed that the moons’ colors vary depending on the objects’ distances from Saturn. And the moon hues are similar to the colors of the rings that the objects are closest to, the team reports online March 28 in Science.

Close-in Pan was the reddest moon, while the farthest-out Epimetheus was the bluest. The researchers think the red material comes from Saturn’s dense main rings, and mostly consists of organics and iron (SN Online: 10/4/18). The blue material is probably water ice from Saturn’s more distant E ring, which is created by plumes erupting from the larger, icy moon Enceladus.

The team thinks that the rings are continually depositing material onto the moons. “It’s an ongoing process,” Buratti says. She notes that “skirts” of material at Atlas and Pan’s equators are probably made of accreted ring debris, too.

The overall similarity between the moons and rings led the researchers to conclude that these small moons are leftover shards of a destructive event that created the rings in the first place. But it’s unknown whether that event was a collision between long-gone, larger moons, the shredding of one moon by Saturn’s gravity, or some other occurrence (SN: 1/20/18, p. 7).

Saturn, its rings and its moons are “very dynamic,” says planetary scientist Matija Ćuk of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. The idea that the rings are still shedding material onto the moons today “sounds perfectly reasonable.” He isn’t sure the moons formed at the same time as the rings, though. It’s possible “they formed from the rings since that catastrophic event,” he says.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

More Stories from Science News on Planetary Science