Fine-scale density wave structure of Saturn's rings: A hydrodynamic theory Academic Article uri icon


  • Aims. We examine the linear stability of the Saturnian ring disk of mutually gravitating and physically colliding particles with special emphasis on its fine-scale ∼100 m density wave structure, that is, almost regularly spaced, aligned cylindric density enhancements and optically-thin zones with the width and the spacing between them of roughly several tens particle diameters. Methods. We analyze the Jeans' instabilities of gravity perturbations (e.g., those produced by a spontaneous disturbance) analytically by using the Navier-Stokes dynamical equations of a compressible fluid. The theory is not restricted by any assumptions about the thickness of the system. We consider a simple model of the system consisting of a three-dimensional ring disk that is weakly inhomogeneous and whose structure is analyzed by making a horizontally local short-wave approximation. Results. We demonstrate that the disk is probably unstable and that gravity perturbations grow effectively within a few orbital periods. We find that self-gravitation plays a key role in the formation of the fine structure. The predictions of the theory are compared with observations of Saturn's rings by the Cassini spacecraft and are found to be in good agreement. In particular, it appears very likely that some of the quasi-periodic microstructures observed in Saturn's A and B rings - both axisymmetric and nonaxisymmetric ones - are manifestations of these effects. We argue that the quasi-periodic density enhancements revealed in Cassini data are flattened structures, with a height to width ratio of about 0.3. One should analyze high-resolution of the order of 10 m data acquired for the A and B rings (and probably C ring as well) to confirm this prediction. We also show that the gravitational instability is a potential cluster-forming mechanism leading to the formation of porous 100-m-diameter moonlets of preferred mass ∼10 7 g each embedded in the outer A ring, although this has yet to be directly measured.

publication date

  • January 1, 2010