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Saturn's New Moons

Saturn is proving to be full of surprises. The Cassini spacecraft, now at just the beginning of its 4-year mission to the planet, has already discovered two new moons and a slew of lightning storms on the ringed planet. Astronomers from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., discovered the moons in pictures that Cassini took in early June. The moons are tiny. They appear to be the smallest ones ever discovered around Saturn. Both take about a day to orbit the planet. They lie between the paths of two larger moons, Mimas and Enceladus. One of the new moons is called S/2004 S1. It's 194,000 kilometers from Saturn's center and measures about 3 kilometers across. The other moon, called S/2004 S2, is 211,000 kilometers from Saturn's center and measures about 4 kilometers across. The new discoveries could make scientists rethink their ideas about other parts of the solar system, especially about the Kuiper Belt—a stash of icy bodies that lies way out at the edge of the solar system. Astronomers have long assumed that the Kuiper Belt is full of small comets, each about the size of a house. These comets would zoom past Saturn at high speeds. If such comets were common out there, though, they would probably ram into Saturn's small moons, smashing them to bits. Because this apparently hasn't happened, the Kuiper Belt's supply of small comets might be smaller than expected. Cassini has also detected bursts of lightning on Saturn. The storms seem to form at fairly high latitudes, and they don't last very long. In the early 1980s, the Voyager spacecraft found a different storm pattern. Voyager recorded long-lasting storms located close to the planet's equator. The difference, astronomers suggest, has to do with a change in season. Two decades ago, Saturn's rings cast a shadow near the planet's equator. This put the cold, shaded part of Saturn's atmosphere next to the hottest part. The result would be turbulent conditions that could produce large storms. Now, it's summer in Saturn's southern hemisphere, and the rings cast a broad shadow over the northern hemisphere. Under these conditions, long-lived storms appear to occur less often. What will Cassini find next? Stay tuned. There's much more to come. —E. Sohn

Saturn's New Moons
Saturn's New Moons








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