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Cassini image of Phoebe. Jason crater occupies much of the upper image
Discovered byW. H. Pickering
Discovery date18 March 1899 (from photos taken 16 August 1898)
Saturn IX
Pronunciation/ˈfbi/ FEE-bee[1][a]
Named after
Φοίβη Phoíbē
AdjectivesPhoebean /fˈbən/ fee-BEE-ən[2]
Orbital characteristics[3]
12 960 000 km
550.564636 d
Inclination173.04° (to the ecliptic)
151.78° (to Saturn's equator)
Satellite ofSaturn
GroupNorse group
Physical characteristics
Dimensions(218.8±2.8) × (217.0±1.2) × (203.6±0.6) km[4]
Mean radius
106.5±0.7 km[4][5]
Mass(8.3123±0.0162)×1018 kg[5]
Mean density
1.6428±0.0326 g/cm3[5]
0.038–0.050 m/s2[4]
≈ 0.102 km/s
9.2735 h (9 h 16 min 25 s ± 3 s)[6]
152.14° (to orbit)[7]
Temperature≈ 73(?) K

Phoebe (/ˈfbi/ FEE-bee) is the most massive irregular satellite of Saturn with a mean diameter of 213 km (132 mi). It was discovered by William Henry Pickering on 18 March 1899[9] from photographic plates that had been taken by DeLisle Stewart starting on 16 August 1898 at the Boyden Station of the Carmen Alto Observatory near Arequipa, Peru. It was the first natural satellite to be discovered photographically.

Phoebe was the first target encountered upon the arrival of the Cassini spacecraft in the Saturn system in 2004, and is thus unusually well-studied for an irregular moon of its size. Cassini's trajectory to Saturn and time of arrival were specifically chosen to permit this flyby.[10] After the encounter and its insertion into orbit, Cassini did not go much beyond the orbit of Iapetus.

Phoebe is roughly spherical and has a differentiated interior. It was spherical and hot early in its history and was battered out of roundness by repeated impacts. It is believed to be a captured centaur that originated in the Kuiper belt.[11] Phoebe is the second-largest retrograde satellite in the Solar System after Triton.[12]



William Henry Pickering, discoverer of Phoebe

Phoebe was discovered by William Henry Pickering on 18 March 1899[9] from photographic plates that had been taken starting on 16 August 1898 at the Boyden Observatory near Arequipa, Peru, by DeLisle Stewart.[13][14][15][16][17][18] It was the first satellite to be discovered photographically.


Phoebe is named after Phoebe, a Titaness in Greek mythology associated with the Moon, who was the sister of Cronus (the Greek equivalent of the Roman god Saturn).[16] It is also designated Saturn IX in some scientific literature. The IAU nomenclature standards have stated that features on Phoebe are to be named after characters in the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. In 2005, the IAU officially named 24 craters (see Named features).[19]

Toby Owen of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, chairman of the International Astronomical Union Outer Solar System Task Group said:

We picked the legend of the Argonauts for Phoebe as it has some resonance with the exploration of the Saturn system by Cassini–Huygens. We can't say that our participating scientists include heroes like Hercules and Atalanta, but they do represent a wide, international spectrum of outstanding people who were willing to take the risk of joining this voyage to a distant realm in hopes of bringing back a grand prize.


Animation of Phoebe's orbit.
   Saturn ·    Phoebe ·   Titan

Phoebe's orbit is retrograde; that is, it orbits Saturn opposite to Saturn's rotation. For more than 100 years, Phoebe was Saturn's outermost known moon, until the discovery of several smaller moons in 2000. Phoebe is almost 4 times more distant from Saturn than its nearest major neighbor (Iapetus), and is substantially larger than any of the other moons orbiting planets at comparable distances.

All of Saturn's regular moons except Iapetus orbit very nearly in the plane of Saturn's equator. The outer irregular satellites follow moderately to highly eccentric orbits, and none are expected to rotate synchronously as all the inner moons of Saturn do (except for Hyperion).

Phoebe may form its own subgroup along with two other satellites with similar orbits, S/2006 S 20 and S/2006 S 9.

Phoebe ring

Artist's impression of the Phoebe ring, which dwarfs the main rings

Main article: Rings of Saturn § Phoebe ring

The Phoebe ring is one of the rings of Saturn. This ring is tilted 27 degrees from Saturn's equatorial plane (and the other rings). It extends from at least 128 to 207[20] times the radius of Saturn; Phoebe orbits the planet at an average distance of 215 Saturn radii. The ring is about 40 times as thick as the diameter of the planet.[21] Because the ring's particles are presumed to have originated from micrometeoroid impacts on Phoebe, they should share its retrograde orbit,[22] which is opposite to the orbital motion of the next inner moon, Iapetus. Inwardly migrating ring material would thus strike Iapetus's leading hemisphere, contributing to its two-tone coloration.[23][24][25][26] Although very large, the ring is virtually invisible—it was discovered using NASA's infrared Spitzer Space Telescope.

Material displaced from Phoebe's surface by microscopic meteor impacts may be responsible for the dark areas on the surface of Hyperion.[b] Debris from the biggest impacts may be the origin of the other moons of Phoebe's group (the Norse group)—all of which are less than 10 km in radius.

Physical characteristics

Size comparison between Phoebe (lower left), the Moon (upper left) and Earth
Named craters on Phoebe

Phoebe is roughly spherical and has a diameter of 213±1.4 km[4] (132 mi), approximately one-sixteenth that of the Moon. It is Saturn's ninth-largest moon, but it is the eighth-most massive. Hyperion, another one of Saturn's moons, has a larger radius, but is less massive than Phoebe. Phoebe rotates every nine hours and 16 minutes, and completes a full orbit around Saturn in about 18 months. Its surface temperature is on average 75 K (−198.2 °C).

Cassini's closeup of Phoebe from 13 June 2004; the crater Euphemus is at top center

Most of Saturn's inner moons have very bright surfaces, but Phoebe's albedo is much lower in comparison (0.100±0.005), though relatively bright compared to other irregular moons with measured albedos.[8] The Phoebean surface is heavily scarred. The largest crater, Jason, is roughly 100 km in diameter.[27]

Phoebe's dark coloring initially led to scientists surmising that it was a captured asteroid, as it resembled the common class of dark carbonaceous asteroids. These are chemically very primitive and are thought to be composed of original solids that condensed out of the solar nebula with little modification since then.[28]

However, images from Cassini indicate that Phoebe's craters show a considerable variation in brightness, which indicate the presence of large quantities of ice below a relatively thin blanket of dark surface deposits some 300 to 500 metres (980 to 1,640 ft) thick. In addition, quantities of carbon dioxide have been detected on the surface, a finding that has never been replicated for an asteroid. It is estimated that Phoebe is about 50% rock, as opposed to the 35% or so that typifies Saturn's inner moons. For these reasons, scientists are coming to think that Phoebe is in fact a captured centaur, one of a number of icy planetoids from the Kuiper belt that orbit the Sun between Jupiter and Neptune.[29][30] Phoebe is the first such object to be imaged as anything other than a dot.

Despite its small size, Phoebe is thought to have been a spherical body early in its history, with a differentiated interior, before solidifying and being battered into its current, slightly non-equilibrium shape.[31]

Named features

Apart from one regio named after Phoebe's daughter, Leto, all named features are craters named after characters from the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts.[32]

Name Pronunciation Greek Coordinates Diameter (km) Approval Date Named After Ref
Leto Regio /ˈlt/ Λητώ 60°00′N 20°00′W / 60.0°N 20.0°W / 60.0; -20.0 (Leto) 95 2000 Daughter of Phoebe in Greek mythology WGPSN
Named Phoebean craters
Name Pronunciation Greek Coordinates Diameter (km) Approval Date Named After Ref
Acastus /əˈkæstəs/ Ἄκαστος 9°36′N 148°30′W / 9.6°N 148.5°W / 9.6; -148.5 (Acastus) 34 2006 Son of Thessalian king Pelias, took part in the Calydonian boar hunt WGPSN
Admetus /ædˈmtəs/ Ἄδμητος 11°24′N 39°06′W / 11.4°N 39.1°W / 11.4; -39.1 (Admetus) 58 2006 Founder and king of Pherae in Thessaly WGPSN
Amphion /æmˈf.ɒn/ Ἀμφῑ́ων 27°00′S 1°48′W / 27.0°S 1.8°W / -27.0; -1.8 (Amphion) 18 2006 Son of Hyperasius and Hypso WGPSN
Butes /ˈbjuːtz/ Βούτης 49°36′S 292°30′W / 49.6°S 292.5°W / -49.6; -292.5 (Butes) 29 2006 Son of Teleon, bee-master WGPSN
Calais /ˈkæliəs/ Κάλαϊς 38°42′S 225°24′W / 38.7°S 225.4°W / -38.7; -225.4 (Calais) 31 2006 Son of Boreas, the north wind WGPSN
Canthus /ˈkænθəs/ Κάνθος 69°36′S 342°12′W / 69.6°S 342.2°W / -69.6; -342.2 (Canthus) 44 2006 Son of Kanethos or Cerion, the only member of the expedition to die in combat WGPSN
Clytius /ˈklɪtiəs, -ʃəs/ Κλυτίος 46°00′N 193°06′W / 46.0°N 193.1°W / 46.0; -193.1 (Clytius) 52 2006 Son of Eurytus, skilled archer who was killed by Apollo for challenging the god to a shooting match WGPSN
Erginus /ˈɜːrɪnəs/ Ἐργῖνος 31°36′N 337°06′W / 31.6°N 337.1°W / 31.6; -337.1 (Erginus) 38 2006 Son of Neptune, helmsman of the Argo after the death of Tiphys WGPSN
Euphemus /jˈfməs/ Εὔφημος 31°18′S 331°06′W / 31.3°S 331.1°W / -31.3; -331.1 (Euphemus) 23 2006 Son of Neptune and Europa WGPSN
Eurydamas /jʊˈrɪdəməs/ Εὐρυδάμᾱς 61°30′S 281°36′W / 61.5°S 281.6°W / -61.5; -281.6 (Eurydamas) 19 2006 Son of Ctimenus WGPSN
Eurytion /jʊˈrɪtiən/ Εὐρυτίων 30°24′S 8°00′W / 30.4°S 8.0°W / -30.4; -8.0 (Eurytion) 14 2006 Son of Kenethos or Cerion WGPSN
Eurytus /ˈjʊərɪtəs/ Εὔρυτος 39°42′S 177°12′W / 39.7°S 177.2°W / -39.7; -177.2 (Eurytus) 89 2006 Son of Mercury and Antianira WGPSN
Hylas /ˈhləs/ Ὕλας 7°54′N 354°30′W / 7.9°N 354.5°W / 7.9; -354.5 (Hylas) 30 2006 Son of Theiodamas/Theodamas, king of the Dryopes WGPSN
Idmon /ˈɪdmɒn/ Ἴδμων 67°06′S 197°48′W / 67.1°S 197.8°W / -67.1; -197.8 (Idmon) 61 2006 Son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene, or of Abas, a prophet WGPSN
Iphitus /ˈɪfɪtəs/ Ἴφιτος 27°12′S 293°18′W / 27.2°S 293.3°W / -27.2; -293.3 (Iphitus) 22 2006 Son of Eurytus, Jason's host during his consultation with the Oracle at Delphi WGPSN
Jason /ˈsən/ Ἰάσων 16°12′N 317°42′W / 16.2°N 317.7°W / 16.2; -317.7 (Jason) 101 2006 The leading Argonaut, son of the Thessalian king Aeson, delivered the Fleece WGPSN
Mopsus /ˈmɒpsəs/ Μόψος 6°36′N 109°06′W / 6.6°N 109.1°W / 6.6; -109.1 (Mopsus) 37 2006 Prophesying son of Apollo WGPSN
Nauplius /ˈnɔːpliəs/ Ναύπλιος 31°30′N 241°30′W / 31.5°N 241.5°W / 31.5; -241.5 (Nauplius) 24 2006 Son of Neptune and Amymone, or of Klytoneos WGPSN
Oileus /ˈləs/ Ὀϊλεύς 77°06′S 96°54′W / 77.1°S 96.9°W / -77.1; -96.9 (Oileus) 56 2006 King of the Locrians, renowned for his courage in battle WGPSN
Peleus /ˈpləs/ Πηλεύς 20°12′N 192°12′W / 20.2°N 192.2°W / 20.2; -192.2 (Peleus) 44 2006 Son of Aeacus, father of Achilles WGPSN
Phlias /ˈfləs/ Φλίας 1°36′N 359°06′W / 1.6°N 359.1°W / 1.6; -359.1 (Phlias) 14 2006 Son of Dionysus WGPSN
Talaus /ˈtæliəs/ Ταλαός 52°18′S 325°12′W / 52.3°S 325.2°W / -52.3; -325.2 (Talaus) 15 2006 Son of Teleon, or of Bias and Pero WGPSN
Telamon /ˈtɛləmən/ Τελαμών 48°06′S 92°36′W / 48.1°S 92.6°W / -48.1; -92.6 (Telamon) 28 2006 Son of Aeacus, took part in the Calydonian boar hunt WGPSN
Zetes /ˈztz/ Ζήτης 20°00′S 223°00′W / 20.0°S 223.0°W / -20.0; -223.0 (Zetes) 29 2006 Son of Boreas, the north wind WGPSN



Phoebe formed in the Kuiper belt within three million years after the origin of the Solar System. This was early enough that sufficient radioactive material was available to melt it into a sphere and stay warm enough to have liquid water for tens of millions of years.[31]

Observation and exploration

Phoebe (with NGC 4179 in the lower right corner) as imaged with a 24" telescope

Unlike Saturn's other moons, Phoebe was not favorably placed for the Voyager probes. Voyager 2 observed Phoebe for a few hours in September 1981. In the images, taken from a distance of 2.2 million kilometres at low phase angle, the size of Phoebe was approximately 11 pixels and showed bright spots on the otherwise dark surface.

Cassini passed 2,068 kilometres (1,285 mi) from Phoebe on 11 June 2004,[33] returning many high-resolution images, which revealed a scarred surface. Because Voyager 2 had not been able to produce any high-quality images of Phoebe, obtaining them was a priority for the Cassini mission[10] and its flight path was deliberately designed to take it close by; otherwise, Cassini would likely not have returned images much better than Voyager's. Because of Phoebe's short rotation period of approximately 9 hours, 17 minutes, Cassini was able to map virtually the entire surface of Phoebe. The close fly-by enabled the mass of Phoebe to be determined with an uncertainty of only 1 in 500.[34]

See also


  1. ^ The Latin form is 'Phoēbē', with stress on the first 'e' (Phoebe), but no-one proposes that pronunciation for English
  2. ^ The composition implied by spectra does not seem to support the earlier suggestion that Phoebe could be the source of the dark material deposited on Iapetus.


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  2. ^ "Phoebean". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
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