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Cassini spots snowballs punching through one of Saturn’s rings

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Six images of the mini-jets taken by Cassini between 2005 and 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/QMUL

Objects half a mile in diameter have been spotted punching through Saturn’s outermost ring, the F ring, and leaving glittering trails as they drag icy particles behind them. Scientists are calling these trails mini-jets.

The scientists were actually looking at Prometheus, one of Saturn’s small moons, when they saw the first of the trails. They went back to look for more and, after combing through all 20,000 of the seven years’ worth of Cassini images, found around 500 of them.

Prometheus is no stranger to disrupting the F ring. It creates channels and ripples in the ring, and the snowballs themselves too. But scientists didn’t know what happened to the snowballs after they were created. These images show that some of them survive and go on to push through the F ring on their own.

“These little guys are the missing link,” says Carl Murray, a Cassini imaging team member based at Queen Mary, University of London, who narrates a video explaining the finding. If you are interested in how Cassini scientists study images of Saturn and the F ring, watch the video right until the end.

Kelly Oakes About the Author: Kelly Oakes has a master's in science communication and a physics degree, both from Imperial College London. Now she spends her days writing about science. Follow on Twitter @kahoakes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 4:46 pm 04/24/2012

    Interesting discovery and nice video. It was unclear to me, though, what the (snowballs?) were a missing link TO… Perhaps just the link to what happens to snowballs?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Kelly Oakes in reply to Kelly Oakes 6:49 am 04/25/2012

    Yes, I thought the same – I think he means the trails are the missing link to what happens to the snowballs. But you’re right, it is an odd choice of words. I have to admit it did amuse me slightly, and that’s probably why I used it.

    Link to this

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