A group including Hedman and Mark Showalter, a Cassini co-investigator based at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., then realized that the grooves in the D ring appeared to wind together more tightly over time. Playing the process backward, Hedman then demonstrated the pattern originated when something tilted the D ring off its axis by about 100 meters (300 feet) in late 1983. The scientists found the influence of Saturn’s gravity on the tilted area warped the ring into a tightening spiral.
Cassini imaging scientists got another clue when the sun shone directly along Saturn’s equator and lit the rings edge-on in August 2009. The unique lighting conditions highlighted ripples not previously seen in another part of the ring system. Whatever happened in 1983 was not a small, localized event; it was big. The collision had tilted a region more than 19,000 kilometers (12,000 miles) wide, covering part of the D ring and the next outermost ring, called the C ring. Unfortunately spacecraft were not visiting Saturn at that time, and the planet was on the far side of the sun, hidden from telescopes on or orbiting Earth, so whatever happened in 1983 passed unnoticed by astronomers.
Hedman and Showalter, the lead author on the second paper, began to wonder whether the long-forgotten pattern in Jupiter’s ring system might illuminate the mystery. Using Galileo images from 1996 and 2000, Showalter confirmed a similar winding spiral pattern. They applied the same math they had applied to Saturn – but now with Jupiter’s gravitational influence factored in. Unwinding the spiral pinpointed the date when Jupiter’s ring was tilted off its axis: between June and September 1994. Shoemaker-Levy plunged into the Jovian atmosphere during late July 1994. The estimated size of the nucleus was also consistent with the amount of material needed to disturb Jupiter’s ring.
The Galileo images also revealed a second spiral, which was calculated to have originated in 1990. Images taken by New Horizons in 2007, when the spacecraft flew by Jupiter on its way to Pluto, showed two newer ripple patterns, in addition to the fading echo of the Shoemaker-Levy impact.
Jia-Rui Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Michael Buckley 240-228-7536
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.
Additional contacts: Blaine Friedlander, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., 607-254-6235, email@example.com; Karen Randall, SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif., 650-960-4537, firstname.lastname@example.org; and Joe Mason, Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo., 720-974-5859, email@example.com.