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‘Earhart’ Propeller in Saturn’s A Ring

Posted March 31, 2017

The propeller informally named “Earhart” is seen in this view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at much higher resolution than ever before. This view, obtained on March 22, 2017, is the second time Cassini has deliberately targeted an individual propeller for close-up viewing during its ring-grazing orbits, after its images of Santos-Dumont (PIA21433) a month earlier. The biggest known propeller, informally named “Bleriot,” is slated for the third and final propeller close-up in April 2017.

Propellers are disturbances in the ring caused by a central moonlet. The moonlet itself would be a few pixels wide in this view, but it is difficult to distinguish from (and may be obscured by) the disturbed ring material that surrounds it. (See PIA20525 for more info on propellers.)


The detailed structure of the Earhart propeller, as seen here, differs from that of Santos-Dumont. It is not clear whether these differences have to do with intrinsic differences between Earhart and Santos-Dumont, or whether they have to do with different viewing angles or differences in where the propellers were imaged in their orbits around Saturn.

Earhart is situated very close to the 200-mile-wide (320-kilometer-wide) Encke Gap, which is held open by the much larger moon Pan. In this view, half of the Encke Gap is visible as the dark region at right.

The gap and the propeller are a study in contrasts. The propeller is nothing more than Earhart’s attempt to open a gap like Encke using its gravity. However, Earhart’s attempt is thwarted by the mass of the ring, which fills in the nascent gap before it can extend very far. Pan is a few thousand times more massive than Earhart, which enables it to maintain a gap that extends all the way around the ring.

To the right of the propeller are wave features in the rings caused by the moons Pandora, Prometheus and Pan.

The visible-light image was acquired by the Cassini narrow-angle camera at a distance of 69,183 miles (111,340 kilometers) from the propeller feature. Image scale is 0.4 mile (670 meters) per pixel in the radial, or outward-from-Saturn, direction. The view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (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 mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Source: NASA

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