Bleriot Propeller Close-Up

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

May 11, 2017 – This view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows Cassini’s best image of the propeller feature known informally as Bleriot. The propeller is named after Louis Bleriot, the French engineer and aviator who in 1909 was the first person to fly across the English Channel.

This is the third and final propeller to be targeted for a close flyby observation during Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits (the period from November 2016 to April 2017 when Cassini’s orbit passed just outside the main rings). Previously, Cassini targeted propellers Santos-Dumont and Earhart. Because propellers are seen in the outermost parts of the main rings, the ring-grazing orbits provided Cassini’s best opportunity to see them up close.

Many small, bright specks and linear, scratch-like artifacts are visible in the image. These artifacts are due to cosmic rays and particles of radiation near the planet striking the camera detector during the exposure.

Bleriot is the largest of the propellers in Saturn’s rings. The wavy features embedded in the propeller structure indicate that its central moonlet is some 60 percent wider than that of Santos-Dumont, which means the Bleriot moonlet is about four times more massive.

Cassini scientists have been tracking the orbit of this object for the past decade, tracing the effect that the ring has upon it. Because it is the biggest propeller, it is more easily seen in lower-resolution images than other propellers, and thus it can be spotted in the most images by far. Here, as Cassini moved in close to the rings as part of its ring-grazing orbits, it was able to obtain this extreme close-up view of the propeller, which enables researchers to examine its effects on the ring as never before. These views, and others like them, will inform models and studies in new ways going forward.

This image was taken on the unilluminated side of the rings, where sunlight filters through the backlit ring. Like a frosted window, Saturn’s rings look different depending on whether they are seen fully sunlit or backlit. On the lit side, the rings look darker where there is less material to reflect sunlight. On the unlit side, some regions look darker because there is less material, but other regions look dark because there is so much material that the ring becomes opaque.

Most dramatically in this image, a dark band cuts deeply through the middle of Bleriot’s propeller. It is much more prominent than the similar dark band in the unlit-side image of the Santos-Dumont propeller, indicating that Bleriot stirs up the ring particles to much higher densities than does Santos-Dumont. The dark bands are regions where the density is so high that the ring becomes opaque to the sunlight filtering through the rings.

As in Cassini’s other propeller close-up images, the central moonlet itself seems to be obscured by the stirred-up ring material around it, so that it cannot be directly seen. It would be about three pixels across, and lies at the center of the propeller structure.

The image was taken using the Cassini spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera on April 12. Image scale in this view is 0.3 mile (500 meters) per pixel. The sun-ring-spacecraft angle, or phase angle, is 83 degrees.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.