Contact! The short, bright streaks of a propeller called “Bleriot” show the location of a mini-moon (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Like Jupiter, Saturn is orbited by a large extended family of moons — 62, at last count — ranging in size from the gigantic 3,200-mile-wide Titan, wrapped in thick clouds, to the barely 2-mile-wide Methone, smooth as a river rock. But there are even more moons in the ringed planet’s retinue, tiny worlds embedded inside the icy rings themselves. Even with the Cassini spacecraft they are nearly impossible to see… until they give themselves away with their shining “propellers.”

In the image above we get a view across 9,000 miles of Saturn’s A ring, the outermost of the main ring structures, with Saturn itself well off frame to the left. Inside one of the darker segments of the rings, at lower left center, are two short, bright streaks — one pointing up, one pointing down. This is what the Cassini science team calls a “propeller,” a clumping of ring particles in front of and behind a tiny moonlet located between the two “blades.”

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The moonlet is too small to be resolved here directly — it’s less than half a mile across — but its gravity is still strong enough to affect the tiny particles that comprise Saturn’s rings. Made mostly of water ice, the more the particles gather together the more they tend to reflect sunlight — highlighting the moonlet’s location for Cassini.

Depending on the angle of sunlight, propellers can also appear darker than the surrounding rings.

A propeller called “Earhart” casts a shadow on the rings in Aug. 2009 (NASA/JPL/SSI)

This particular propeller is nicknamed “Bleriot,” after the French aviator who made the first airplane flight across the English Channel in 1909. (The Cassini imaging team has fittingly decided to name propellers — albeit informally — after famous aviators.) First observed by Cassini in 2005 Bleriot has been repeatedly revisited, most recently in this observation from Nov. 11, 2012.

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By observing propellers over time researchers hope to gain a better understanding of how they move and evolve, and what their effects are on the ring particles around them.

Watch an animation of Bleriot traveling around the rings here, and read more on the Cassini mission page.

Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute