Saturn: Moons: Phoebe
Phoebe (FEE-bee) is one of Saturn's most intriguing satellites, orbiting at a distance of
12,952,000 kilometers (8,049,668 miles) from the planet, almost four times the
distance from Saturn than its nearest neighbor, the moon Iapetus. Phoebe
and Iapetus are the only major moons in the Saturnian system that do not
orbit closely to the plane of Saturn's equator.
Phoebe is roughly spherical and has a diameter of about 220 kilometers
(about 132 miles), about one-fifteenth the diameter of Earth's moon.
Phoebe rotates on its axis every nine hours, and it completes a full
in about 18 months. Its irregular, elliptical orbit
is inclined about 30 degrees to Saturn's equator. Phoebe's orbit is also
retrograde, which means it goes around Saturn the opposite direction
than most other moons -- as well as most objects in the solar system.
Unlike most major moons orbiting Saturn, Phoebe is very dark and
reflects only 6 percent of the sunlight it receives. Its darkness and
irregular, retrograde orbit suggest Phoebe is most likey a captured
object. A captured object is a celestial body that is trapped by the
gravitational pull of a much bigger body, generally a planet. Phoebe's
darkness, in particular, suggests that the small moon comes from the
outer solar system, an area where there is plenty of dark material.
Some scientists think Phoebe could be a captured Centaur. Centaurs are
believed to be
bodies that migrated into the inner solar
system. Centaurs are found between the asteroid belt and the Kuiper
Belt, and are considered a kind of intermediate type of small body,
neither an asteroid nor a Kuiper Belt object. If Phoebe is indeed a
captured Centaur, images and scientific data of Phoebe taken by the
Cassini spacecraft will give scientists the first opportunity to study a
Kuiper Belt object.
Kuiper Belt objects are of extreme interest to scientists because they
are believed to be primordial; that is, they appear to date from the
formation of the solar system. These objects are the building blocks of
the solar system, the leftovers that never pulled into a planet. And
because of its relative small size, Phoebe might never have heated up
enough to change its chemical composition -- which increases the
scientific value of its study.
Phoebe in Mythology
Phoebe is another name for the goddess that the Greeks
called Artemis and the Romans called Diana. She was the
youthful goddess of Earth's Moon, forests, wild animals and
hunting. Sworn to chastity and independence, she never
married and was closely identified with her brother, Apollo.