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Cassini Sees Shepherding Moons.

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Shepherding Moons.
Shepherding Moons: Image credit: http://ciclops.lpl.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is now close enough to Saturn that it's able to resolve the two F-ring-shepherding moons: Prometheus and Pandora. Prometheus is 102 km across, and Pandora is 84 km across, and they interact with Saturn's outermost ring causing clumps and other unusual formations. They have very chaotic orbits, which can change unpredictably when they get close to each other. The moons were originally discovered by Voyager 1 in 1980, and follow-up observations have been made by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Cassini has sighted Prometheus and Pandora, the two F-ring-shepherding moons whose unpredictable orbits both fascinate scientists and wreak havoc on the F ring.

Prometheus (102 kilometers, or 63 miles across) is visible left of center in the image, inside the F ring. Pandora (84 kilometers, or 52 miles across) appears above center, outside the ring. The dark shadow cast by the planet stretches more than halfway across the A ring, the outermost main ring. The mottled pattern appearing in the dark regions of the image is 'noise' in the signal recorded by the camera system, which has subsequently been magnified by the image processing.

The F ring is a narrow, ribbon-like structure, with a width seen in this geometry equivalent to a few kilometers. The two small, irregularly shaped moons exert a gravitational influence on particles that make up the F ring, confining it and possibly leading to the formation of clumps, strands and other structures observed there. Pandora prevents the F ring from spreading outward and Prometheus prevents it from spreading inward. However, their interaction with the ring is complex and not fully understood. The shepherds are also known to be responsible for many of the observed structures in Saturn's A ring.

The moons, which were discovered in images returned by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1980, are in chaotic orbits - their orbits can change unpredictably when the moons get very close to each other. This strange behavior was first noticed in ground-based and Hubble Space Telescope observations in 1995, when the rings were seen nearly edge-on from Earth and the usual glare of the rings was reduced, making the satellites more readily visible than usual. The positions of both satellites at that time were different than expected based on Voyager data.

One of the goals for the Cassini-Huygens mission is to derive more precise orbits for Prometheus and Pandora. Seeing how their orbits change over the duration of the mission will help to determine their masses, which in turn will help constrain models of their interiors and provide a more complete understanding of their effect on the rings.

This narrow angle camera image was snapped through the broadband green spectral filter, centered at 568 nanometers, on March 10, 2004, when the spacecraft was 55.5 million kilometers (34.5 million miles) from the planet. Image scale is approximately 333 kilometers (207 miles) per pixel. Contrast has been greatly enhanced, and the image has been magnified to aid visibility of the moons as well as structure in the rings.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and the Cassini imaging team home page, http://ciclops.org.

Original Source: CICLOPS News Release

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