Science

Saturn spent billions of years without its rings, NASA says

Saturn spent billions of years without its rings, NASA says”

Saturn's rings might have formed relatively recently-like, in the past hundred million years or so-according to new research.

An Italian-led team reported Thursday in the journal Science that Saturn's primary rings appear to be 10 million to 100 million years old.

It was previously thought the rings formed 4.5 billion years ago from icy debris left behind after the formation of the universe.

Using observations from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, researchers have found that Saturn's rings are actually much younger than the planet itself. Sensors on the spacecraft measured, essentially, how much the gravity of the planet and of the rings tugged it back and forth.

During Cassini's orbits of Saturn, instruments examined the icy, rocky rings in unprecedented detail.

"These measurements were only possible because Cassini flew so close to the surface in its final hours", said a statement from Burkhard Militzer, study author and professor of Earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Arguably the most elegantly attractive planet in the solar system today, Saturn may've been a far less remarkable pale dot, without its trademark rings, not that long ago. They used data from Cassini's "Grand Finale", where the spacecraft plunged through the planet's rings before burning up in the atmosphere below. In another 100 million years, Saturn's most distinctive feature might be gone. They estimate that around 10 tons (9,072 kilograms) of material is falling onto Saturn from the rings per second, as Meghan Bartels for Space.com writes.

He continued: "Although we don't yet know why, something catastrophic happened, perhaps in the age of the dinosaurs, that resulted in Saturn having a ring system completely unlike Jupiter and the ice giants Uranus and Neptune". As Cassini was running out of fuel and dipping towards its demise in the atmosphere of Saturn, it dipped between Saturn and its rings 22 times. These massive flows are moving about 4 percent slower than the upper atmospheric clouds that are visible, causing a gravitational anomaly that wasn't predicted.

"The discovery of deeply rotating layers is a surprising revelation about the internal structure of the planet", said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The new data from Cassini now suggests the rings' mass is only about 15.4 million billion metric tons.

There were clues that Saturn's rings were younger, but scientists are just now determining how young.

Saturn's E ring, meanwhile, has its own unique source: plumes of water vapor streaming into space from the moon Enceladus, believed to harbour an ocean beneath its surface. "The question is what causes the more rapidly rotating part of the atmosphere to go so deep and what does that tell us about Saturn's interior". Lower mass indicates a younger age, the researchers said, adding that the still-bright rings would have been darkened by debris over a longer period.



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