2012.B.1.1. Scouting Saturn’s Rings with Small Spacecraft


Matthew Hedman (1), Matthew Tiscareno (1), Joseph Burns (1), Philip Nicholson (1) and Michael Johnson (1)

  1. Cornell University


B.1 – Interplanetary CubeSat Missions and Science


Saturn, Planetary Rings, Outer Solar System


Large numbers of small spacecraft  could  provide powerful new ways to explore Saturn’s dense Main Rings at close range. While these rings span a region several hundred thousand kilometers wide, they are composed of particles that are only  millimeters to meters across. These ring particles move around the planet at roughly 20 km/s, but the relative speeds of nearby ring particles are only about 1 mm/s. Mutual gravitational attraction and frequent collisions among these ring particles produce diverse structures on a wide range of spatial scales. Saturn’s Main Rings therefore provide a natural laboratory for investigating the dynamics of particle-rich disks. However, obtaining data on the rings at the size scale of individual particles is challenging because it is difficult to approach the rings at close range without actually sending the spacecraft through the rings, where it is likely to collide with ring material. While such collisions pose a significant hazard to large spacecraft, they could also allow sufficiently rugged or disposable small spacecraft to be implanted into the rings. Once in the rings, such spacecraft could provide information about such basic parameters as the ring particles’ coefficients of restitution, velocity dispersions, rotation states, and potentially even their sizes, composition and spatial distributions.


  • Download slides in PDF format here
  • Low quality video available here


  • Optional paper not submitted

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