Gravitational resonance: Saturn's rings



Perhaps no one thought much more would need to be known about Saturn's rings 100 or so years ago, when Daniel Kirkwood explained the various features. The main rings, within the three so-called Cassini divisions, were due to gravitational resonance conditions between small orbiting particles and the satellite Mimas. Now, after several spacecraft—especially Voyager—have shown the rings' close-up characteristics, there has been a great deal of activity in the planetary geophysics community to try to explain the origin of the numerous features of the rings of solar system bodies that were far beyond the resolution of telescopes in Kirkwood s day. A pretty good sample of that activity was reported recently by R.A. Kerr (Science, Oct. 8, 1982), who stated ‘Resonance theory still stands after the onslaught of spacecraft observations, but its new applications have yielded a greater variety of ring features than Kirkwood ever dreamed.’ One has only to have an inkling of the levels of gravitational mechanics to appreciate the complexities of the theories that have yielded resonance variations such as spiral density waves and bending waves in the past few years. As theories unfold, however, and are tested against Voyager's results, it has become evident that most of the actually observed ring structure of the major planets remains unexplained.