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Criss-crossed Saturn rings?

Saturn’s rings appear to be intersecting in an impossible way. But – in this new Cassini spacecraft image – we’re really just seeing a play of light and shadow.

View larger. | Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

View larger. | Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Are Saturn’s rings criss-crossed in this February, 2016, Cassini spacecraft image? No. It’s not a new discovery, just an illusion caused by the fact that Saturn’s rings aren’t solid objects. NASA said:

At first glance, Saturn’s rings appear to be intersecting themselves in an impossible way. In actuality, this view … shows the rings in front of the planet, upon which the shadow of the rings is cast.

Saturn’s rings are composed of millions of tiny moonlets. They aren’t solid; we can see through them. And that’s why we can see the shadow of the rings behind the rings themselves, creating this apparent criss-cross. Speaking of this image, NASA went on to say:

Saturn’s rings have complex and detailed structures, many of which can be seen here. In some cases, the reasons for the gaps and ringlets are known; for example, Pan (17 miles or 28 kilometers across) — seen here near image center — keeps open the Encke gap. But in other cases, the origins and natures of gaps and ringlets are still poorly understood.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 14 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Feb. 11, 2016.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.2 million miles (1.9 million kilometers) from Pan and at a Sun-Pan-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 85 degrees. Image scale is 6 miles (10 kilometers) per pixel.

Click here to go to the Cassini imaging team homepage

Image via NASA

Eleanor Imster