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Saturn's Spokes: Lost and Found

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Science  17 Mar 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5767, pp. 1587-1589
DOI: 10.1126/science.1123783

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Abstract

The spokes are intermittently appearing radial markings in Saturn's B ring that are believed to form when micrometer-sized dust particles are levitated above the ring by electrostatic forces. First observed by the Voyagers, the spokes disappeared from October 1998 until September 2005, when the Cassini spacecraft saw them reappear. The trajectories of the charged dust particles comprising the spokes depend critically on the background plasma density above the rings, which is a function of the solar elevation angle. Because the rings are more open to the Sun now than when Voyager flew by, the charging environment above the rings has prevented the formation of spokes until very recently. We show that this notable effect is capable of stopping spoke formation entirely and restricting the size of the particles in the spokes.

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