37th DPS Meeting, 4-9 September 2005
Session 62 Planetary Rings I
Oral, Friday, September 9, 2005, 9:00-10:30am, Music Concert Hall

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[62.01] Saturn's rings - an overview

J. N. Cuzzi (Ames Research Center)

Saturn's rings embody in their diversity the entire spectrum of ring properties seen across the outer solar system, and remain unique in fundamental ways. The Voyager flybys revealed their complexity in 1980-1981, while groundbased and HST observations have provided important new insights since that time. Since July 2004, when it skimmed only tens of thousands of km over the unlit face of the rings - collecting unique remote and in-situ observations as it entered orbit - Cassini has been fulfilling the long-held dream of understanding Saturn's rings in depth. As of this meeting, if all continues as planned, seven orbits designed specifically with ring observations in mind will have been completed - each providing even better geometric opportunities than an entire Voyager flyby (to a spacecraft with far more powerful instruments than Voyager). Even these represent only a fraction of what the complete mission will tell us about the rings. This talk will review the key properties of the rings, highlight the themes and new insights emerging from recent studies, and serve as a context for new results presented at the meeting. The key properties include the relationship of the rings to their close-in and embedded moons; the composition of the rings and its spatial variation; and the complex radial and vertical structure of the rings, as related to local particle sizes and mass density. The main themes are that several evolutionary processes cause all these to vary - we think substantially - with time, and that the rings may be much younger than Saturn. To achieve our goal of understanding the origin of the rings, we must start from an in-depth characterization of their current state, and peer back through their extensive evolution. Cassini observations, and their theoretical analysis, will ultimately make this possible.

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 37 #3
© 2004. The American Astronomical Soceity.