Since its arrival to Saturn in 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has utilized its suite of sophisticated instruments to further our understanding of the Saturnian ring system. We analyze occultation data from Cassini's Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS) in order to measure the particle size distribution and place limits on the minimum particle sizes in Saturn's rings. Throughout the ring system, particle accretion is countered by collisional and tidal disruption and Keplerian shear. Therefore, the particle size distribution of the rings is continually evolving. The presence of sub-centimeter particles, which have short lifetimes due to these processes, is indicative of ongoing dynamics in the rings. Sub-centimeter-sized particles efficiently diffract light at ultraviolet wavelengths, and thus produce signatures of diffraction in the occultation data. The shape and intensity of the diffraction signatures are indicative of the sizes of the particles that produce them. The UVIS wavelength bandpass, 51.2 - 180 nm, contains the shortest wavelengths of the Cassini instruments, making it most sensitive to the smallest particles in the rings. We have developed a computational model that reconstructs the geometry of a UVIS observation and produces a synthetic diffraction signal for a given truncated power-law particle size distribution, which we compare with the observed signal. We implement this model for two sets of observations: (1) diffraction spikes at sharp ring edges during stellar occultations and (2) the light curve due to attenuated and diffracted sunlight by particles in Saturn's F ring during solar occultations. Near sharp ring edges, ring particles can diffract light such that there is a measurable increase in the signal of an unocculted star exterior to the ring. In Saturn's A ring, diffracted light can augment the stellar signal by up to 6% and can be detected tens of kilometers radially beyond the edge. The radial profile of the diffraction signal is dependent on the size distribution of the particle population near the ring edge. These diffraction signals are observed at sharp edges throughout Saturn's rings, although in this work we focus on diffraction at the outer edge of Saturn's A ring and at the edges of the Encke Gap. We find an overall steepening of the power-law size distribution and a decrease in the minimum particle size at the outer edge of the A ring when compared with the Encke Gap edges. This suggests that interparticle collisions caused by satellite perturbations in the region result in more shedding of regolith or fragmentation of particles in the outermost parts of the A ring. We rule out any significant population of sub-millimeter-sized particles in Saturn's A ring, placing a lower limitation of 1-mm on the minimum particle size in the ring. We also model the light curves produced as Saturn's F ring occults the Sun. We consider both the attenuated signal and the light diffracted by the particles in the ring during the occultation. Five of the eleven solar occultations analyzed show a clear signature of diffracted light that surpasses the unocculted solar signal. This includes a misaligned solar occultation that placed most of the solar disk outside of the instrument's field of view, reducing the solar signal by 97.5% and resulting in the serendipitous detection of diffracted light. We measure a large variation in the the size distribution of the particles that fill the broad, ~500 km region surrounding the F ring core. We find that smaller particles ( < 50 micrometers) are present during solar occultations for which diffraction was detected, and place a lower limit on the minimum particle size of 100 micrometers for occultations during which diffraction was not detected. A comparison with images of the F ring observed by the Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem near the times of the occultations reveals that the detections of small particles in the UVIS data correspond with locations of collisional events in the F ring. This implies that collisions within the F ring core replenish the sub-millimeter-sized dust in the 500-km region that encompasses the F ring core.


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Graduation Date





Colwell, Joshua


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program

Physics; Planetary Sciences









Release Date

May 2016

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)