Radar imaging of Saturn's rings

Philip D. Nicholson, Richard G. French, Donald B. Campbell, Jean Luc Margot, Michael C. Nolan, Gregory J. Black, Heikki J. Salo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


We present delay-Doppler images of Saturn's rings based on radar observations made at Arecibo Observatory between 1999 and 2003, at a wavelength of 12.6 cm and at ring opening angles of 20.1° ≤ B ≤ 26.7°. The average radar cross-section of the A ring is ∼77% relative to that of the B ring, while a stringent upper limit of 3% is placed on the cross-section of the C ring and 9% on that of the Cassini Division. These results are consistent with those obtained by Ostro et al. [1982, Icarus 49, 367-381] from radar observations at B = 21.4°, but provide higher resolution maps of the rings' reflectivity profile. The average cross-section of the A and B rings, normalized by their projected unblocked area, is found to have decreased from 1.25 ± 0.31 to 0.74 ± 0.19 as the rings have opened up, while the circular polarization ratio has increased from 0.64 ± 0.06 to 0.77 ± 0.06. The steep decrease in cross-section is at variance with previous radar measurements [Ostro et al., 1980, Icarus 41, 381-388], and neither this nor the polarization variations are easily understood within the framework of either classical, many-particle-thick or monolayer ring models. One possible explanation involves vertical size segregation in the rings, whereby observations at larger elevation angles which see deeper into the rings preferentially see the larger particles concentrated near the rings' mid-plane. These larger particles may be less reflective and/or rougher and thus more depolarizing than the smaller ones. Images from all four years show a strong m = 2 azimuthal asymmetry in the reflectivity of the A ring, with an amplitude of ±20% and minima at longitudes of 67 ± 4° and 247 ± 4° from the sub-Earth point. We attribute the asymmetry to the presence of gravitational wakes in the A ring as invoked by Colombo et al. [1976, Nature 264, 344-345] to explain the similar asymmetry long seen at optical wavelengths. A simple radiative transfer model suggests that the enhancement of the azimuthal asymmetry in the radar images compared with that seen at optical wavelengths is due to the forward-scattering behavior of icy ring particles at decimeter wavelengths. A much weaker azimuthal asymmetry with a similar orientation may be present in the B ring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)32-62
Number of pages31
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 2005
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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