An Optical Illusion Makes a Beautiful Photograph of Saturn’s Rings
Saturn's bent rings

Cassini’s newest image of Saturn and its rings might look like it was up close, but the spacecraft was more than 1.1 million miles away.

bent rings of Saturn

Beautiful, isn’t it? Saturn never ceases to amaze. It’s one of the first planets I go searching for on the rare occasion I toss my telescope in the front yard. It’s either too hazy in the summer or too cold in the winter. Spring and fall? Ok, maybe I’m just lazy.

What makes this picture cool is the way the rings appear to bend as they get closer to Saturn’s limb. What’s going on here?

Saturn’s atmosphere is absorbing some, but not all, of the light reflected by the rings as it passes through. The rest of the light? It’s being refracted and gives us a bent look at Saturn’s A and F rings. The rings might look like they are bending. But they are straight. For the most part.

A disturbance at F Ring

Ok, so F ring isn’t always straight and calm. On April 8, 2016, Cassini snapped this picture.

F ring shake up

Your first assumption about what caused the apparent collision with F ring is probably sitting in the bottom right of the image. That’s Pandora. One of 62 Saturn moons we know about. It’s about 50 miles across. But NASA scientists are pretty sure Pandora isn’t responsible for the disruption in this ring. It was more likely caused by some small object within the ring interacting with another. These features are sometimes called jets.

That’s not to say nearby moons like Pandora don’t influence F ring. Check out this GIF showing the moon Prometheus causing ripples across F ring back in 2005.

moon and F ring

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