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Jupiter's intricate, swirling ring system is formed by dust kicked up as interplanetary meteoroids smash into the giant planet's four small inner moons, according to scientists studying data from NASA's Galileo spacecraft. Images sent by Galileo also reveal that the outermost ring is actually two rings, one embedded within the other.
The findings were announced today by scientists from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO), Tucson, AZ, at a news briefing held at Cornell.
"We now know the source of Jupiter's ring system and how it works," said Cornell astronomer Dr. Joseph Burns, who reported on the first detailed analysis of a planet's ring system, along with Maureen Ockert-Bell and Dr. Joseph Veverka of Cornell, and Dr. Michael Belton of NOAO.
"Rings are important dynamical laboratories to look at the processes that probably went on billions of years ago when the Solar System was forming from a flattened disk of dust and gas," Burns explained. Furthermore, similar faint rings probably are associated with many small moons of the Solar System's other giant planets. "I expect we will see similar processes at Saturn and the other giant planets," Burns said.
In the late 1970s, NASA's two Voyager spacecraft first revealed the structure of Jupiter's rings: a flattened main ring and an inner, cloud-like ring, called the halo, both composed of small, dark particles. One Voyager image seemed to indicate a third, faint outer ring. New Galileo data reveal that this third ring, known as the gossamer ring because of its transparency, consists of two rings. One is embedded within the other, and both are composed of microscopic debris from two small moons, Amalthea and Thebe.
"For the first time we can see the gossamer-bound dust coming off Amalthea and Thebe, and we now believe it is likely that the main ring comes from Adrastea and Metis," Burns said. "The structure of the gossamer rings was totally unexpected," Belton added. "These images provide one of the most significant discoveries of the entire Galileo imaging experiment."
Galileo took three dozen images of the rings and small moons during three orbits of Jupiter in 1996 and 1997. The four moons display "bizarre surfaces of undetermined composition that appear very dark, red and heavily cratered from meteoroid impacts," Veverka said. The rings contain very tiny particles resembling dark, reddish soot. Unlike Saturn's rings, there are no signs of ice in Jupiter's rings.
Scientists believe that dust is kicked off the small moons when they are struck by interplanetary meteoroids, or fragments of comets and asteroids, at speeds greatly magnified by Jupiter's huge gravitational field, like the cloud of chalk dust that rises when two erasers are banged together. The small moons are particularly vulnerable targets because of their relative closeness to the giant planet.
"In these impacts, the meteoroid is going so fast it buries itself deep in the moon, then vaporizes and explodes, causing debris to be thrown off at such high velocity that it escapes the satellite's gravitational field," Burns said. If the moon is too big, dust particles will not have enough velocity to escape the moon's gravitational field. With a diameter of just five miles (eight kilometers) and an orbit that lies just at the periphery of the main ring, tiny Adrastea is "most perfectly suited for the job."
As dust particles are blasted off the moons, they enter orbits much like those of their source satellites, both in their size and in their slight tilt relative to Jupiter's equatorial plane. A tilted orbit wobbles around a planet's equator, much like a hula hoop twirling around a person's waist. This close to Jupiter, orbits wobble back and forth in only a few months.
Jupiter's diameter is approximately 86,000 miles (143,000 kilometers). The ring system begins about 55,000 miles (92,000 kilometers) from Jupiter's center and extends to about 150,000 miles (250,000 kilometers) from the planet.
Galileo has been orbiting Jupiter and its moons for 2 1/2 years, and is currently in the midst of a two-year extension, known as the Galileo Europa Mission. JPL manages the Galileo mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. JPL is a division of Caltech, Pasadena, CA. The new images, and further information on this discovery and the Galileo mission, are available on the Internet at the Galileo website: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/galileo or at the Cornell website: http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/sept98/jupiter_rings.html