Out-of-this-world photo may reveal birth of Saturn moon

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On July 19, 2013, in an event celebrated the world over, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn’s shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings — and, in the background, our home planet, Earth. (Photo: NASA)

(PIX11) — Something strange is happening on Saturn that has scientists here on Earth paying close attention to our astronomical neighbor.

The far-off planet may be creating a new moon, a phenomena that would be a first for modern astronomers to witness, according to scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Details about the unique observation were published Tuesday by the journal Icarus.

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The discovery could reveal how Earth and other planets in the solar system may have formed and migrated away from the sun to their current orbits, scientists said.

“We have not seen anything like this before,” said Carl Murray of Queen Mary University of London, the report’s lead author. “We may be looking at the act of birth, where this object is just leaving the rings and heading off to be a moon in its own right.”

Casually dubbed “Peggy” by scientists, the potential moon is too small to be seen in any detail in images taken so far.

The most recent photo, which NASA released this week, was taken with Cassini’s narrow angle camera on April 15, 2013.

saturn rings new moon


This image taken by the Saturn-bound Cassini-Huygens Mission shows what scientists think may be the formation of a new moon out of the planet’s characteristic rings. (Cassini-Huygens Mission/NASA)

It shows a “disturbance” shooting off the planet’s outermost A ring. The potential moon is estimated to be about 20 percent brighter than its surroundings, and measures about 750 miles long and 6 miles wide, scientists said.

Even though the picture is not absolute proof that Saturn is adding to its 62 moons, Cassini is expected to get a better look at “Peggy” when it orbits the outside edge of the A ring in late 2016, scientists said.

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It’s possible that this will be the last time Saturn’s rings will show off their moon-making process.

“The theory holds that Saturn long ago had a much more massive ring system capable of giving birth to larger moons,” Murray said. “As the moons formed near the edge, they depleted the rings and evolved, so the ones that formed earliest are the largest and the farthest out.”

Scientists are “wringing” all the knowledge they can from the unique discovery, JPL said.

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