One of the most stunning images ever take of Saturn by the Cassini space probe – the planet backlit by the distant Sun, with the normally faint E ring glowing in a blue halo of light.
At the kick off for the new Merkinch Nature Reserve astronomy programme tonight, I got to talk about one of my favourite planets of all time – Saturn and its mind blowing ring system.
The dynamics of the rings are so subtle and complex. Some of the gaps in the rings are made by moonlets clearing paths, whilst other moons are actually replenishing the rings.
The small moon Enceladus is a fascinating example. It’s spewing out frozen ice from its south pole due to tidal heating, effectively generating Saturn’s faint E ring (the faint blue outer ring pictured above).
Enceladus, a small icy Moon with a salty internal ocean. Tidal stresses imparted by Saturn produce great jets of water from the southern pole of Enceladus, which instantly freeze, adding icy material to Saturn’s E ring.
You could sit on a moonlet of Saturn and watch the rings forming little wavelets in real time around you. Some of the larger rings actually wash back and forth like waves on a giant ocean.
Many of the smaller moonlets orbiting Saturn have a polished or smooth aspect to them. This is due to fine particulates from the rings being drawn towards them due to gravity, effectively power coating the surface and covering over any craters or blemishes. This accretion of material onto the moons has been imaged by Cassini.
We had great turnout for the kickoff. The next event is a Moon special on Nov 7th. Look out for eventbrite links here on on my Facebook page.
The tiny moon Pan, clearing a path through Saturn’s rings. Its gravity is strong enough to produce beautiful ripples within the rings. As it orbits, Pan receives a fine power coating of frozen dust from the rings lending the moonlet a smooth, polished appearance.
A view of Orion from the Merkinch Nature Reserve at a previous event. Credit Simon Garrod
I’m delighted to be continuing the urban astronomy initiative with the Merkinch Nature Reserve this year, in partnership with project manager Caroline Snow.
Going forward we now have a base of operations to host our astronomy gatherings, after a successful trial last year at the Inverness Sea Cadet hall on Kessock Road. The venue allows us to host indoor talks and activities and is only a ten minute walk from the nature reserve itself, giving us the option to stargaze during open skies.
The first event planned for 2019 is an Introduction to Observing and Moon Night, where I’ll present a beginners guide to astronomy – what to consider buying to get started and what to potentially avoid. We’ll take a break from proceedings to observe the gibbous Moon and stars if conditions are clear. All booking enquiries should be directed to Caroline, who’s email is in the event link above.
We have plans to roll out further events as part of a larger 2019 programme. Stay tuned here or on the Merkinch Facebook site for details as they develop.