Objects of Phoebe's size have long been thought to form as "potato-shaped" bodies and remained that way over their lifetimes. If such an object formed early enough in the solar system's history, it could have harbored the kinds of radioactive material that would produce substantial heat over a short timescale. This would warm the interior and reshape the moon.
"From the shape seen in Cassini images and modeling the likely cratering history, we were able to see that Phoebe started with a nearly spherical shape, rather than being an irregular shape later smoothed into a sphere by impacts," said co-author Peter Thomas, a Cassini team member at Cornell.
Phoebe likely stayed warm for tens of millions of years before freezing up. The study suggests the heat also would have enabled the moon to host liquid water at one time. This could explain the signature of water-rich material on Phoebe's surface previously detected by Cassini.
The new study also is consistent with the idea that several hundred million years after Phoebe cooled, the moon drifted toward the inner solar system in a solar-system-wide rearrangement. Phoebe was large enough to survive this turbulence.
More than 60 moons are known to orbit Saturn, varying drastically in shape, size, surface age and origin. Scientists using both ground-based observatories and Cassini's cameras continue to search for others.
Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington