Twist In Saturn's Electric Ring

Saturn's ring current, an invisible torus of particles trapped into orbit around the planet, is bent out of shape. Astronomers are at a loss to explain the lack of symmetry.


(Cassini image of Saturn shows lopsided structure)

Earth also has a ring current that is made primarily of hydrogen; it appears during solar flares. Saturn's ring current is made largely of oxygen and is always present. Scientists believe that Enceladus spews water vapor as it orbits Saturn, replenishing the ring current.

So, scientists are left with a puzzle.

"It's curious that Saturn's ring current isn't symmetric," said Don Mitchell, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University who helped examine the images beamed back to Earth. "We think the solar wind is squishing the sunward side of the ring current, kind of like a wind sock."

Science fiction fans, however, are thinking more ominous thoughts.

In their excellent 1985 novel Footfall, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (see also just Niven and just Pournelle) write about an alien attack that is presaged by alterations in Saturn's rings.

But the F-ring didn't look normal at all. It showed as three knotted streamers of gas or dust or God knows what all braided together. "Braided," Nat said. "What does that?"

"None of the astronomers wanted to say."

"Okay, I can see why. Catch me in a mistake, I shrug it off. A scientist, he's betting his career."

Later in the novel, the truth comes out.

"...That ship was there all the time we were looking at Saturn. The twisted F-ring... The drive flame from that thing must have roiled the whole ring system...

Via Space.com; thanks to Fred for the tip.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 9/21/2007)

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