Santanu Das

Researcher

Astro-QA #2 : What are the spokes in the Saturn's ring?


Until 1980, the structure of the rings of Saturn was explained as being caused exclusively by the action of gravitational forces. Then images from the Voyager spacecraft showed radial features in the B ring, known as spokes, which could not be explained in this manner, as their persistence and rotation around the rings was not consistent with orbital mechanics.

The leading theory regarding the spokes' composition is that they consist of microscopic dust particles suspended away from the main ring by electrostatic repulsion, as they rotate almost synchronously with the magnetosphere of Saturn. The precise mechanism generating the spokes is still unknown, although it has been suggested that the electrical disturbances might be caused by either lightning bolts in Saturn's atmosphere or micrometeoroid impacts on the rings.

After their first observation in 1980’s, the spokes were not observed again for around twenty-five year. Some scientist speculated that that they may be some instrumental effects during Voyager pass by. But they were observed again by the Cassini space probe. The spokes were not visible when Cassini arrived at Saturn in early 2004. Some scientists speculated that the spokes would not be visible again until 2007, based on models attempting to describe their formation. Nevertheless, the Cassini imaging team kept looking for spokes in images of the rings, and they were next seen in images taken on 5 September 2005.

The spokes appear to be a seasonal phenomenon, disappearing in the Saturnian midwinter and midsummer  and reappearing as Saturn comes closer to equinox. Suggestions that the spokes may be a seasonal effect, varying with Saturn's 29.7-year orbit, were supported by their gradual reappearance in the later years of the Cassini mission. 

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