Moonlets wandering on a leash-ring
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Since the Voyager flybys, embedded moonlets have been proposed to explain some of the surprising structures observed in Saturn's narrow F ring. Experiments conducted with the Cassini spacecraft support this suggestion. Images of the F ring show bright compact spots, and seven occultations of stars by the F ring, monitored by ultraviolet and infrared experiments, revealed nine events of high optical depth. These results point to a large number of such objects, but it is not clear whether they are solid moonlets or rather loose particle aggregates. Subsequent images suggested an irregular motion of these objects so that a determination of their orbits consistent with the F ring failed. Some of these features seem to cross the whole ring. Here we show that these observations are explained by chaos in the F ring driven mainly by the 'shepherd' moons Prometheus and Pandora. It is characterized by a rather short Lyapunov time of about a few hundred orbital periods. Despite this chaotic diffusion, more than 93 per cent of the F-ring bodies remain confined within the F ring because of the shepherding, but also because of a weak radial mobility contrasted by an effective longitudinal diffusion. This chaotic stirring of all bodies involved prevents the formation of 'propellers' typical of moonlets, but their frequent ring crossings explain the multiple radial 'streaks' seen in the F ring. The related 'thermal' motion causes more frequent collisions between all bodies which steadily replenish F-ring dust and allow for ongoing fragmentation and re-accretion processes (ring recycling).