Recent discoveries posing the possibility of faster than light speed travel have again lit the spark of interest in inter-galaxy exploration, but images received from NASA’s Cassini probe last April serve as a stable reminder that our own solar system is still just as worthy of our avid observation. The cold vastness of space around the unique gas giant, Saturn now seems to be a fresh birthing ground. The photo unexpectedly captured and returned evidence of a tiny, fuzzy blip nestled just outside of Saturn’s A ring; what has been interpreted as the astronomical birth of a brand new moon whimsically nicknamed, Peggy.
At less than a mile in diameter, the petite icy body is still in its infancy compared to its 62 older siblings. Like Saturn’s other moons, Peggy formed by the process of accretion and is comprised of ice and rock material that has prior been part of Saturn’s iconic rings. The materials gradually attracted more matter and over time formed its own significant gravitational pull, drawing yet more matter closer to build upon itself. The team of scientists studying the young celestial body believes that when Peggy has finished accreting to its full potential, it will have depleted the rings’ source of viable matter and will likely be the last addition to Saturn’s sizable family of moons. The archetypal rings, however, are not in any danger of disappearing any time soon as a result of this depletion.
Peggy, the newborn icy body received its nickname from Dr. Carl Murray, an astrophysicist at the Queen Mary University of London, one of the scientists on NASA’s Cassini team, and the lead author of a paper about the fledgling moonlet that was published in the science journal, Icarus. Murray said that Peggy’s namesake is his mother in law. The young moon has not yet been given a formal classification, which would have come with a more traditional name beginning with a capital S to illustrate that it is a natural satellite, before the year it was discovered and the number of satellites discovered that year. Peggy may well join the ranks of Saturn’s other moons, many of which sport names relating to Greek and Roman mythology, like Titan, the largest and most well-known of Saturn’s moons. However, with a playful moniker like Peggy during the age of viral internet information, chances are pretty good that colloquial knowledge of this celestial sphere may hang on just as it did with 70 Virginis b, popularly known as the Goldilocks planet.
NASA is expecting Cassini’s orbit to drift closer to Saturn’s A ring in late 2016, which would hopefully provide it with the proximity of a better view of the new moon’s birth and any changes that may have occurred since the last photo was taken. With years of formation potential ahead of it, and wide and varied set of diverse siblings, Peggy’s development into a fully grown moon is sure to be an interesting spectacle to stay updated on. In a vacillating and ever-changing universe with the power to draw attention outward, the beauty of cosmic metamorphosis in our own solar system is a privilege to bear witness to, even on such a small-scale.
By Faye Barton