In Saturn's ring system, there is a small precursor moon named Peggy. And in this chaotic realm of dust, rock and orbiting ice cubes, Peggy is slowly being sandblasted to bits.
In a series of photos captured by the Cassini orbiter, which is currently buzzing around Saturn, NASA researchers found a clump near the edge of Saturn's A ring. The object may be a new moon in the process of forming, says NASA. Or, more likely, says John Timmer for Ars Technica, it may be a moon that didn't quite make it and is now being torn apart.
Scientists think that moons form in Saturn's rings when material slams together to form larger clusters. As the objects grow in mass, they migrate further out from the center of the system. NASA says that Peggy may have formed in this way:
"Witnessing the possible birth of a tiny moon is an exciting, unexpected event," said Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. According to Spilker, Cassini's orbit will move closer to the outer edge of the A ring in late 2016 and provide an opportunity to study Peggy in more detail and perhaps even image it.
But, says Timmer, citing a study on the new object, it's more likely that Peggy will live and die in the rings than emerge as a new, full-fledged Saturnian moon. So long, Peggy. We hardly knew ye.