With a diameter of 396 kilometres (246 mi), it is the smallest astronomical body that is known to still be rounded in shape because of self-gravitation. However, Mimas is not actually in hydrostatic equilibrium for its current rotation.
Mimas was discovered by the astronomer William Herschel on 17 September 1789. He recorded his discovery as follows: “I continued my observations constantly, whenever the weather would permit; and the great light of the forty-feet speculum was now of so much use, that I also, on the 17th of September, detected the seventh satellite, when it was at its greatest preceding elongation.”
The 40-foot telescope was a metal mirror reflecting telescope built by Herschel, with a 48-inch (1,200 mm) aperture. The 40 feet refers to the length of the focus, not the aperture diameter as more common with modern telescopes.
Mimas is named after one of the Giants in Greek mythology, Mimas. The names of all seven then-known satellites of Saturn, including Mimas, were suggested by William Herschel’s son John in his 1847 publication Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope. Saturn (the Roman equivalent of Cronus in Greek mythology) was the leader of the Titans, the generation before the Gods, and ruler of the world for some time. The Giants were the subsequent generation, and each group fought a great struggle against the Gods.
Mimas with its large crater Herschel. Other bright-walled craters include Ban just left of center near top, and Percivale two thirds of the way left of Herschel. (Cassini, 2010)
Artwork depicting the Mimas discovery telescope
The surface area of Mimas is slightly less than the land area of Spain. The low density of Mimas, 1.15 g/cm3, indicates that it is composed mostly of water ice with only a small amount of rock. Due to the tidal forces acting on it, Mimas is noticeably prolate; its longest axis is about 10% longer than the shortest. The ellipsoidal shape of Mimas is especially noticeable in some recent images from the Cassini probe.
Mimas’s most distinctive feature is a giant impact crater 130 km (81 mi) across, named Herschel after the discoverer of Mimas. Herschel’s diameter is almost a third of Mimas’s own diameter; its walls are approximately 5 km (3 mi) high, parts of its floor measure 10 km (6 mi) deep, and its central peak rises 6 km (4 mi) above the crater floor. If there were a crater of an equivalent scale on Earth (in relative size) it would be over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) in diameter, wider than Australia. The impact that made this crater must have nearly shattered Mimas: the surface antipodal to (opposite through the globe) Herschel is highly disrupted, indicating that the shock waves created by the Herschel impact propagated through the whole moon.
The Mimantean surface is saturated with smaller impact craters, but no others are anywhere near the size of Herschel. Although Mimas is heavily cratered, the cratering is not uniform. Most of the surface is covered with craters larger than 40 km (25 mi) in diameter, but in the south polar region, there are generally no craters larger than 20 km (12 mi) in diameter.
Cassini view of Mimas’s trailing hemisphere, showing craters up to 6 km deep and 1-km-deep chasmata (grooves). The large crater near center is Morgan; Arthur is close to the lower right limb. Pelion Chasma is faintly visible as a horizontal trough left of Arthur and below Morgan.
A number of features in Saturn’s rings are related to resonances with Mimas. Mimas is responsible for clearing the material from the Cassini Division, the gap between Saturn’s two widest rings, the A Ring and B Ring. Particles in the Huygens Gap at the inner edge of the Cassini division are in a 2:1 orbital resonance with Mimas. They orbit twice for each orbit of Mimas. The repeated pulls by Mimas on the Cassini division particles, always in the same direction in space, force them into new orbits outside the gap. The boundary between the C and B rings is in a 3:1 resonance with Mimas. Recently, the G Ring was found to be in a 7:6 co-rotation eccentricity resonance[clarification needed] with Mimas; the ring’s inner edge is about 15,000 km (9,300 mi) inside Mimas’s orbit.
Mimas is also in a 2:1 mean-motion resonance with the larger moon Tethys, and in a 2:3 resonance with the outer F Ring shepherd moonlet, Pandora. A moon co-orbital with Mimas was reported by Stephen P. Synnott and Richard J. Terrile in 1982, but was never confirmed.
In 2014, researchers noted that the librational motion of Mimas has a component that cannot be explained by its orbit alone, and concluded that it was due to either an interior that is not in hydrostatic equilibrium (an elongated core) or an internal ocean. However, in 2017 it was concluded that the presence of an ocean in Mimas’ interior would have led to surface tidal stresses comparable to or greater than those on tectonically active Europa. Thus, the lack of evidence for surface cracking or other tectonic activity on Mimas argues against the presence of such an ocean; as the formation of a core would have also produced an ocean and thus the nonexistent tidal stresses, that possibility is also unlikely. The presence of an asymmetric mass anomaly associated with the crater Herschel may be a more likely explanation for the libration.
Mimas was imaged several times by the Cassini orbiter, which entered into orbit around Saturn in 2004. A close flyby occurred on February 13, 2010, when Cassini passed by Mimas at 9,500 km (5,900 mi).
When seen from certain angles, Mimas resembles the Death Star, a fictional space station and superweapon known from the 1977 film Star Wars. Herschel resembles the concave disc of the Death Star’s “superlaser”. This is coincidental, as the film was made nearly three years before Mimas was resolved well enough to see the crater.
In 2010, NASA revealed a temperature map of Mimas, using images obtained by Cassini. The warmest regions, which are along one edge of Mimas, create a shape similar to the video game character Pac-Man, with Herschel Crater assuming the role of an “edible dot” or “power pellet” known from Pac-Man gameplay.