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Commotion in Saturn's Rings: New Photo Reveals Ink-Stain Smudge

Saturn's rings reach across the photo, and the outermost, thin one
A new photo taken by the orbiting Cassini spacecraft reveals a bright jet caused by an object inside Saturn's ring. Saturn's moon Pandora is also visible in the lower right. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

A stunning photo of Saturn from the orbiting Cassini spacecraft reveals a large, bright smudge on the planet's outermost ring, suggesting interference from a passing object.

The photo is among those taken by NASA's Cassini orbiter this past April. The mark crossing Saturn's skinny F-ring looks almost like a smear of ink left behind by a faulty office printer, but this giant smudge was no mechanical error. Instead, the affected ring appears to reveal disturbance from some object out in space.

Though Saturn's moon Pandora is visible nearby in the new portrait, the satellite probably didn't cause the disruption to Saturn's ring. Instead, a small object that resides inside of the ring probably created the disturbance, NASA officials said in a statement.

When a small body interacts with material inside of Saturn's rings, the result is a bright smudge like this one. The smudges are called jets, and the bodies that cause them are too tiny for cameras like the one on Cassini to see, especially at a distance of 1.4 million miles away. However, the disruptions caused by the jets are easily viewable. (This isn't the first time Cassini has spotted disruptions in Saturn's F-ring). 

This image was taken by Cassini from the sun-facing side of Saturn, so natural light provided a clear view of the planet, its many rings and the jet. 

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Hanneke Weitering

Hanneke Weitering is an editor at Space.com with 10 years of experience in science journalism. She has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the Space.com team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time Hanneke likes to explore the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.