Estimating the Masses of Saturn's A and B Rings from High-Optical Depth N-Body Simulations and Stellar Occultations

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We have completed a series of local N-body simulations of Saturn's B and A rings in order to identify systematic differences in the degree of particle clumping into self-gravity wakes as a function of orbital distance from Saturn and dynamical optical depth (a function of surface density). These simulations revealed that the normal optical depth of the final configuration can be substantially lower than one would infer from a uniform distribution of particles. Adding more particles to the simulation simply piles more particles onto the self-gravity wakes while leaving relatively clear gaps between the wakes. Estimating the mass from the observed optical depth is therefore a non-linear problem. These simulations may explain why the Cassini UVIS instrument has detected starlight at low incidence angles through regions of the B ring that have average normal optical depths substantially greater than unity at some observation geometries [Colwell, J.E., Esposito, L.W., Sremčević, M., Stewart, G.R., McClintock, W.E., 2007. Icarus 190, 127-144]. We provide a plausible internal density of the particles in the A and B rings based upon fitting the results of our simulations with Cassini UVIS stellar occultation data. We simulated Cassini-like occultations through our simulation cells, calculated optical depths, and attempted to extrapolate to the values that Cassini observes. We needed to extrapolate because even initial optical depths of >4 (σ > 240 g cm-2) only yielded final optical depths no greater than 2.8, smaller than the largest measured B ring optical depths. This extrapolation introduces a significant amount of uncertainty, and we chose to be conservative in our overall mass estimates. From our simulations, we infer the surface density of the A ring to be σ = 42 s(-) 54 g cm-2, which corresponds to a mass of 0.5 × 1019 kg s(-) 0.7 × 1019 kg. We infer a minimum surface density of σ = 240 s(-) 480 g cm- 2 for Saturn's B ring, which corresponds to a minimum mass estimate of 4 × 1019 kg s(-) 7 × 1019 kg. The A ring mass estimate agrees well with previous analyses, while the B ring is at least 40% larger. In sum, our lower limit estimate is that the total mass of Saturn's ring system is 120-200% the mass of the moon Mimas, but significantly larger values would be plausible given the limitations of our simulations. A significantly larger mass for Saturn's rings favors a primordial origin for the rings because the disruption of a former satellite of the required mass would be unlikely after the decay of the late heavy bombardment of planetary surfaces.






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