Small Moons: Seeds & Saucers

The Cassini web page featured a news release on some of the findings on the small moons of Saturn. Above, Janus, the moon racing out of the solar system in Alastair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice. These moons are super lightweight: floating material in a water ocean big enough. If an alien interstellar drive were hidden, it would have to be mostly empty space.

The tip-off was the very low density of the inner moons, about half that of pure water ice, and sizes and shapes that suggested they have grown by the accumulation of ring material. The trouble was, these moons are within and near the rings, where it is not possible for small particles to fuse together gravitationally. So how did they do it? They got a jump start.

“We think the only way these moons could have reached the sizes they are now, in the ring environment as we now know it to be, was to start off with a massive core to which the smaller, more porous ring particles could easily become bound,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. Porco is the lead author of the first of two related articles published in this week’s issue of Science.

Simple calculations and more complicated computer simulations have shown that ring particles will readily become bound to a larger seed having the density of water ice. By this process, a moon will grow even if it is relatively close to Saturn. The result is a ring-region moon about two to three times the size of its dense ice core, covered with a thick shell of porous, icy ring material. To make a 30-kilometer moon (19 miles) requires a seed of about 10 kilometers (6 miles).

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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