Probing Saturns Rings

Even in the case of Saturn, whose rings were discovered by Galileo in the early seventeenth century (he described them as horns or handles jutting out from the planetary disk), occultations can still tell us much about the structure of the debris circuiting that planet. The timing of the roller-coaster ride followed by the intensity of light from a carousing star allows far better resolution than we can obtain from direct images of the rings. The photographs of Saturn

FIGURE 12-5. The ring arcs of Neptune as imaged by Voyager 2 in 1989. Neptune itself is at lower right, somewhat overexposed with the image contrast stretched to make the rings visible.

from the Voyager spacecraft encounters are wonderful, but our detailed knowledge of the ring structure derives from artificial occultation data obtained by recording the intensity blips of stars whose light was intercepted as the spacecraft swept by the rings. Because of the data collected in that way we know that, rather than being broad, flat, featureless bands, the rings of Saturn actually contain many thousands of individual strands, their dynamical behavior affected by the gravitational tugs of its several dozen moons.

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