KentuckyFC writes: In 1980 and 1981, Voyager 1 and 2 flew past Saturn providing unprecedented images of its magnificent ring system. At that time, its most distant discrete ring, the F ring, was about 200 kilometres wide. But puzzlingly, images sent back by Cassini show that the ring is now 580 kilometres wide and twice as bright as it was thirty years ago. Now astronomers think they have finally solved the mystery of the expanding F ring. The ring is shepherded by a number of small moons, the most famous of which is Prometheus. These moons interact gravitationally with the ring creating structures such as braids and spokes. The new thinking is that the moons' orbits resonate with the F ring, pushing clouds of dust and ice further away from Saturn. This makes the ring wider. But beyond a certain radius the orbit of the dust becomes unstable and it begins to spiral back towards Saturn and collides with the rest of the ring. This causes a chain reaction of collisions that dramatically increases the number of particles in the ring and hence its brightness. This theory also leads to a prediction--the resonant process is currently at a maximum but should reduce sharply in the coming years, if the theory is correct. So by 2018, the F ring should be back to the same configuration the Voyagers saw in 80/81.
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