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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Saturn's equinox: Daphnis' shadow and wake

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

07-08-2009 19:30 CDT

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There are two major things that I was sorry not to be able to write about during my maternity leave. One of them is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launch and first images, and the other is the approaching equinox at Saturn. LRO I'll have to return to later, but Saturn's equinox is right around the corner, on August 11 -- it's time to focus on that!

Saturn's equinox is a Really Big Deal. It's such a big deal that the Cassini Saturn orbiter two-year mission extension is titled the "Equinox Mission." Why is the equinox such a big deal? Let me step back and make sure we're all on the same page about what the equinox means, and then I'll show you the eye candy that results from Saturn's equinox.

Like Earth, Saturn rotates on an axis that's tilted to the plane in which it orbits the Sun. So, as it goes around the Sun, Saturn has seasons. When the south pole of the rotation axis is pointed in the general direction of the Sun, as it was when Cassini arrived there in June 2004, it's summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the north. The south pole of Saturn, and all of Saturn's moons, received continuous sunlight, and the north poles were in permanent night. And the southern face of Saturn's rings was in permanent sunlight (except when they passed through the shadow of the planet), while the northern face of the rings was dark except where the rings were transparent to sunlight.

Cassini arrived a short while after Saturn's southern summer solstice, the day when the Sun made its farthest southern excursion. Since then, as Saturn has proceeded in its stately 30-Earth-year orbit around the Sun, Cassini has watched sunlight move slowly northward. Northern lands on the planet and moons have been seeing sunlight for the first time in years, and the Sun is setting on the southern poles. In high summer, with the Sun far to the south, the rings cast huge shadows on Saturn's northern hemisphere. As summer waned and the Sun moved northward, the ring shadows have moved southward and grown thinner and thinner.

On August 11, 2009, the Sun will pass through Saturn's equator. For a brief moment, both poles will be sunlit, and the shadows of the rings will collapse to a thin line cast across the waist of the planet. This is the equinox. After the equinox, the south poles of Saturn and its moons and the southern face of the rings will be in shadow, while the north poles and north side of the rings will be in sunlight. For the first time, Cassini's cameras will get good looks at the north poles of the moons.

But what is especially exciting about the time period around equinox is the behavior of the rings. The rings are almost unimaginably flat. Although they're roughly twice Saturn's diameter, about 120 thousand kilometers across, they are in most places less than a tenth of a kilometer thick (and in some places, only 10 meters, that is a hundredth of a kilometer, thick). As the Sun has crept northward, it has been striking the rings at a lower and lower angle. (Thanks, by the way, to Dave Seal for sending me a handy-dandy table of solar declination angles for Saturn.)

The unimaginable flatness of the rings means that there's no topography to cast shadows. Or almost no topography. But during the special time around the equinox, as the Sun strikes the rings at angles approaching zero, tiny lumps and bumps within the rings begin to make themselves known as their exceedingly subtle topography begins to cast shadows.

The first time that those of us who watch Cassini through its raw images noticed shadows being cast within the rings was in early April, when the solar declination was just under 2 degrees. At that angle, the shadows being cast are roughly 30 times longer than the height of the features casting the shadows (assuming, that is, that the rings are perfectly horizontal). I wrote about that on April 13.

One of the best places to watch these shadows develop is in the Keeler gap, the division near the outer edge of the A ring that is carved out by the tiny moon Daphnis. The Keeler gap mostly has pretty straight sides, but just in front of and behind the orbit of Daphnis it has a noticeably scalloped structure:

Daphnis, the 'Wavemaker Moon'

NASA / JPL / SSI

Daphnis, the 'Wavemaker Moon'
Among the moons discovered by Cassini is Daphnis, formerly known as S/2005 S1. Daphnis orbits within the narrow Keeler gap at the outer edge of Saturn's A ring, exciting waves in the edge of the gap. This image was taken on August 1, 2005, from a distance of 853,000 kilometers.
In 2005, the structure we were seeing was horizontal structure, where the edge of the Keeler gap moved out from and toward Saturn. At that time, no shadows were visible, and neither was any vertical structure.

Things began to change in January. In the image below, you can see Daphnis casting a shadow on the A ring, and there's just the barest hint that its scalloped wake has a shadow too. According to Dave's table, on this date the solar declination was just under 3 degrees; shadows are about 19 times longer than the objects casting them. If nothing else, that fact tells me that Daphnis is probably saucer-shaped, like Atlas, since it's a couple pixels wide in this photo and yet its shadow is only maybe 8 pixels long. If it were a sphere its shadow should be more like 40 pixels long.

Daphnis shadow and wake

NASA / JPL / SSI

Daphnis shadow and wake
Daphnis orbits within the Keeler gap. In this image, captured by Cassini on January 31, 2009, Daphnis casts a shadow onto the outermost edge of the A ring, and some topography in the scalloped edges of its wake seems also to be casting some shadows.
By April 13, the scallops were clearly casting their own shadows, indicating their subtle vertical relief. The solar declination is 1.85 degrees, so shadows are 31 times longer than the objects casting them.
Daphnis shadow and wake

NASA / JPL / SSI

Daphnis shadow and wake
Cassini captured this image of Daphnis, the moon that orbits within the Keeler gap, on April 13, 2009. The "wake" structures orbiting in front of it clearly cast shadows onto the A ring.
By June 8, the shadows have lengthened enough that you can see that each undulation has its own structure, waves upon waves. The wavelet located closest to Daphnis seems to dissolve into a vertically wispy structure. On the date this image was taken, the sun struck the rings at an angle of just under 1 degree, so shadows were about 60 times longer than the objects casting them.
Daphnis shadow and wake

NASA / JPL / SSI

Daphnis shadow and wake
Cassini captured this image of Daphnis, the moon that orbits within the Keeler gap, on June 8, 2009. The "wake" structures orbiting in front of it clearly cast shadows onto the A ring.
Here's another one of those, solar declination angle 0.7 degrees.
Daphnis shadow and wake

NASA / JPL / SSI

Daphnis shadow and wake
Cassini captured this image of Daphnis, the moon that orbits within the Keeler gap, on June 26, 2009.
The most recent image I could find of Daphnis and its shadows was from July 28, when the solar declination angle was 0.21 degrees. Unlike the previous images in this post, this one was taken from the southern face of the rings; the shadows are being cast onto the northern face, the side we can't see. The shadows are just barely visible because the A ring is slightly transparent.
Daphnis shadow and wake

NASA / JPL / SSI

Daphnis shadow and wake
Cassini captured this image of Daphnis, the moon that orbits within the Keeler gap, on July 28, 2009. The "wake" structures orbiting in front of it clearly cast shadows onto the A ring.
In a few more days, those shadows will lengthen to infinity, the shadows striking parallel to the rings. Of course, with the Sun's rays coming in parallel to the rings, the rings themselves will be almost completely dark.

There are a whole lot of other exciting things to see in Cassini images during this equinox season. Shadows of moons falling on rings, weird lighting effects on the rings, shadows cast by previously undiscovered structures within the rings. I hope to focus on all these topics over the next week. Stay tuned! And in the meantime, you can explore all the weirdness at Saturn by checking out the raw images, posted more or less as they come down from Saturn to JPL's Cassini raw images website.

 
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